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THE HARDER THEY COME

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keone
Director:  Perry Henzell
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Commentary track, video interview, bio and discographies for film’s contributing musicians
Length:  103 Minutes
Release Date:  October 31, 2000

Film ***1/2

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 a troublemaker.

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 his island.

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.

Video ***

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.

Audio ***

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.

Features ***

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. 

Summary:

Criterion scores by once again bringing a classic, non-mainstream title to disc in a presentation that exceeds any previous video incarnation.  The Harder They Come is a slice of pure life in all its rough and ragged glory, with a soundtrack that will stay with you for days.  This little picture that could from Jamaica that helped turn the eyes of the world toward that small island is definitely worth checking out.