THE HARDER THEY COME
Review by Michael Jacobson
Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keone
Director: Perry Henzell
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Commentary track, video interview, bio and discographies for film’s contributing musicians
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: October 31, 2000
The Harder They Come is the type of film that I
respond to strongly. It’s raw,
unpolished, and rough, yet razor sharp. It
was the first mainstream film to be made by Jamaicans about Jamaica, and it was
primarily responsible for introducing reggae music to mainstream popular
culture. To watch the film is not
only to tap your feet to some great music, but to really understand the pain and
anger behind the tunes. These were
some of the first, best and most potent protest songs…we just tended not to
notice because they were so easy to dance to.
The film stars singer/songwriter Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, in a
role that producer/director/co-writer Perry Henzell described as a typical
experience for young country men in Jamaica coming to the city for the first
time. Ivan is inexperienced and naïve.
He gets robbed almost immediately. He
has dreams, as did many of the poor men and women around him, of making it in
the music business. In the
meantime, he tries unsuccessfully to land any kind of job.
Sometimes he has to beg for change on the street just to keep going. How can a man keep any kind of pride under those conditions,
we are asked?
Those conditions wear on Ivan, and before long, we see him
protecting his bicycle with a rather shocking, unpredicted act of violence.
At this point, we realize that the film is not asking us to judge Ivan,
but merely to share in his experience. The
message is certainly as clear today as it was for politically torn Jamaicans of
the time: you can only beat down a
man so long before he starts fighting back.
Ivan gets his chance to make a record (Cliff’s own song
“The Harder They Fall”), but finds the music industry strictly monopolized.
He is offered a mere $20 for his record, which he finally accepts after
trying unsuccessfully to get someone else to release it.
The record comes out, but it is suppressed by moguls who think him to be
It was Ivan’s last chance, and soon he finds himself
hopelessly caught up in a world of drugs and crime, and even murder.
“I told you I’d be famous someday,” he remarks to his girlfriend
ironically. Ivan is soon on the
run, and an entire culture begins to change because of it.
Now, as a famous outlaw, his once squelched record begins
to rule the airwaves and the charts. The
people respond to him like a celebrity (which seems even more topical in our
day). This angers the police, who
feel the record celebrates lawbreaking. They
ban the song. They also call a halt
to the ganja trade, which is the main moneymaking profession for the people of
the ghettos. The police want the
poor to turn Ivan over, and they’re willing to starve men, women and children
alike to accomplish their goals.
The political aspect of the film is indeed inflammatory.
In real life, the Jamaican police stopped the production in response to
some of the movie’s obvious sentiments toward the then conservative government
of the island (which would actually be overthrown a few years later). In that sense, the movie is highly reflective and indicative
of a specific people at a specific point in history, speaking out
none-too-subtly about class struggles, poverty, and capitalism with anger.
In another sense, the film has universal appeal for two
main reasons: one being the
terrific soundtrack, of course, but the other being that it appeals to the most
simple impulses we have toward freedom, dignity and survival.
Maybe under the same circumstances, we wouldn’t choose to kill the way
Ivan did. Maybe.
But it’s hard to know without being there.
This film opens up a window to a world that many outside of the island
had never seen before, and it did so with cold and honest brutality.
The primitive nature of the film both reflects and enhances
the subject matter. There was not a
lot of money spent here. Camera
work is often hand held and sometimes a little jerky.
When it pans, it doesn’t glide smoothly, but hesitantly and humanely.
And apart from a few professionals, most of whom we see in the film were
not actors (including Cliff himself). The
film plays out with the urgency of an urban documentary.
Yet somehow, Henzell managed to capture the beauty of the
island as well, though the opening shot of the bare coconut trees is more
indicative of Jamaica through his eyes. More
recent films like Cool Runnings (which I did like) depict the country as
a tropical paradise. Henzell,
however, saw the dirt, decay and broken humanity behind the postcard images, and
he brought them to life in a way that would show the entire world a new look at
This is not the kind of film that will appeal to everyone,
especially those who might be a little too used to the polished Hollywood
production line type of film. This
movie is blood raw, and unapologetic. It’s
a case where a style enhances the subject matter:
to have made a ‘cleaner’, more smooth version of this movie would
have been the wrong choice, even if it had been an option.
Jimmy Cliff had been a pop star in Jamaica for about a decade prior to his work on this film. His songs, including the title track, “You Can Get it if You Really Want”, “Sitting in Limbo” and more helped spread his fame and music more widely, as well as introduce reggae to a mainstream American audience. The film’s music enhances the experience, and reminds us that amidst the struggle and strain of day to day living there is joy to be found.
But like the lyrics to the up tempo songs show us, we also
have to appreciate and recognize the darker sides of life as well, and to
realize that living and surviving simply aren’t the same things.
Criterion has done a beautiful job with this DVD, making
the most out of original source material that probably wasn’t in the best
shape. If you’ve seen the film on
VHS in the past, you’ll appreciate the attention paid to the transfer on this
disc, which was created with and approved by Perry Henzell. Images are sharp and clean throughout, and coloring is
terrific: natural looking and free
from bleeding. I noticed no picture
problems, in fact, that I could attribute to the transfer itself.
There was no noticeable grain, haze, noise or other compression
artifacts. The only problems were
with the print itself, which occasionally suffered from aging indicators:
not so much dirt and spots, but sometimes splotches and strips that were
a little faded out, and some light scratches here and there that caused an
unnatural looking ‘flicker’ to some
images. Overall, this is definitely
the best this movie has ever looked, and probably ever will look without a full
scale restoration job. I think fans
will definitely be pleased.
This is a faithful digital reproduction of the original
single-channel mono soundtrack, which again, is better than any previous home
video version. It’s much cleaner
and clearer, with a good amount of dynamic range created from the music,
but…OH, how I would have loved a full stereo or better enhancement just for
the songs! Still, no complaints,
and high marks for an experience improved overall.
The highlight is a terrific commentary track featuring
Perry Henzell and Jimmy Cliff recorded separately but edited together.
This was an enjoyable and informative listen.
My favorite commentary tracks are not the ones for the big budget
blockbuster, but for these kinds of films:
modestly budgeted but lovingly and passionately crafted by someone with a
clear vision. Both men come across
pleasantly and comfortably, with affable senses of humor and good delivery.
The disc also includes a video interview with Island Records founder
Chris Blackwell, who helped the soundtrack album become the international hit it
was, and illustrated bios and discographies for all musicians who had songs
featured in the movie.