The Harder They Come premiered at Los Angeles' Filmex in 1972 as a prime piece of exotica: the first feature made in Jamaica that was really about Jamaica (unlike my favorite Jamaica-set film, Dr. No). But campus hipsters everywhere instinctually understood its tale of political rebellion and rock explosion and turned this feral, scraggly, wildly elating movie into a mainstream phenomenon: one of the great college-town hits of its era.
The hero of this gleeful rabble-rouser is a sexy, innocent country boy who hopes to score big in Kingston singing sizzling, street-inspired reggae music. He gets his chance to record, but balks when the local mogul offers him a mere $20. So he enters the island's marijuana trade -- and there too he's a rebel. He refuses to kowtow to the trade's regulators (who include the police) and becomes a legendary outlaw and cop-killer, a symbol of underclass revolt. That's when he becomes a pop star: The one track he recorded -- the catchy title number -- inflames the countryside. In the early '70s, the most seductive image offered to young black males in American movies was Superfly: a hustler preying on sybaritic white people. In The Harder They Come, the reggae star Jimmy Cliff got to embody a black folk hero with the stature of a Jamaican Jesse James.
Director Perry Henzell and his co-writer, Trevor D. Rhone, based their script both on an actual '50s outlaw, Rhygin (whose name may well have come from the English word "raging"), and on the rise of reggae music itself. Cross-fertilized from Jamaican pop and African drums, from the rolling pastoral rhythms of the dispersed rural poor, and from the hopped-up American rock 'n' roll and R&B that reverberated on cheap transistor radios, reggae was more ex-citing to ghetto blacks and threatening to other Jamaicans than earlier tropical crazes like calypso music. The singing group the Maytals, who coined the word "reggae," once defined it as music that sprang from the regular: everyday ghetto life in West Kingston. It depicted slum-dwellers' frustrations with urban corruption and violence and their hopes for redemption.
Henzell's gust of inspiration was to fuse this music with elemental imagery and yarn-spinning -- seeing the film in its first run was like reading underground comics with the stereo on high. Most of that effect survives the faded rerelease prints because of the film's vital atmosphere and electrifying soundtrack. Cliff invests the Rhygin-inspired role of Ivan with lyric avidity and the unself-conscious conviction of an actor who's run through many of his scenes in real life. Ivan puts on an ingratiating mask when he isn't singing or shooting. But when he performs, either as a gunman or a reggae star, his emotions come to points as sharp and clear as bullet holes. Cliff's songs range from the triumphant but nihilistic anthem of "The Harder They Come" ("the harder they fall -- one and all") to the sunny "You Can Get It If You Really Want" ("you'll succeed at last") and the soulful, melancholy "Many Rivers to Cross" ("but I can't seem to find my way over"). He's joined by other artists who helped stoke the reggae movement: the Maytals doing "Pressure Drop," an indelibly sweaty expression of a guilty conscience; Desmond Decker and his evocative "Shanty Town" ("Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town"); and the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad," a denunciation of the violent Kingston rude boys who patterned their behavior after movie gangsters and gunslingers.
Henzell attempts to chart Ivan's own media-fed violence and preening without moralizing; he also takes on reggae's marijuana-flavored spirituality, the purity and the hypocrisy of rigid Jamaican Christians, and the repressive collusion of all branches of the island's establishment. By the end, he loses his balance, trying to position Ivan somewhere between victim of circumstance and homicidal Robin Hood. But days after you see this movie, images of Cliff nuzzling a beautiful preacher's ward (Janet Bartley) or getting off on his own galvanic minstrelsy keep skittering through your mind. The Harder They Come has lost some of its sheen but none of its heat. It still gives you fever.