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Pressure drop: ‘The Harder They Come’

Perry Henzell's ‘The Harder They Come’ is not just a great soundtrack—it's a cracking outlaw film too

Jimmy Cliff in 'The Harder They Come'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 26.02.2024  |  04:30 PM IST

Watching Bob Marley: One Love last week, I was distracted by a stray mention of Jimmy Cliff. Already exasperated with its cautiousness, I spent the rest of the biopic intermittently dreaming of The Harder They Come. Same era, same sounds, same politics, and yet this 1972 film starring Cliff is as rough and exciting as One Love is polished and inert.

By 1972, Cliff was already a hit artist, with a handful of reggae standards—'Many Rivers To Cross', the protest number ‘Vietnam’—to his name. Filmmaker Perry Henzell approached him with a script inspired by a gangster named Rhygin, who was a local sensation when Cliff was a schoolboy. They hit it off, and decided to work together. Their central character, Ivanhoe, was changed to a musician who takes up the gun. They had a certain type in mind—“an anti-hero in the way that Hollywood turns its bad guys into heroes," Cliff recalled.

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The Harder They Come opens with a near-bus collision, albeit a comic one. It’s a fitting start, for this is a film of constant disagreements and challenges and clashes. The Kingston we see is an endless series of shanty towns, where corrupt cops receive cutbacks from marijuana traders and all but a select few live in grinding poverty. Into this comes Ivan, a young man from the country. He’s a singer with no money or belongings, a hair-trigger temper and a taste for expensive toys.

Ivan manages to cut a record with a producer named Hilton (Bob Charlton), but is disgusted with the pittance he’s offered. He goes to jail after slashing a man with a knife, is humiliatingly flogged as punishment. He becomes a runner for ganja traders—even here he’s dissatisfied with his cut. Once he gets hold of a gun, you know it’s just a matter of time before he’s an outlaw. Ironically, as he gets deeper and deeper in trouble, his song becomes a sensation across the island.

There’s a clue to the kind of film Henzell is making in the early scene where the streetwise José takes Ivan, newly arrived in town, to the pictures. Sergio Corbucci’s Django is playing, the audience delighting in the bloody action. “The hero can’t die till the last reel," José admonishes one of them. Though it isn’t as pitiless, The Harder They Come has some of the down-and-dirty spirit of a Corbucci western. The hero isn’t a moral man, or even particularly likeable, there’s barely any rule of law, and everyone’s desperate (“a hungry mob is an angry mob," Bob Marley would sing a few years later). It’s also likely Henzell had his eye on the first rumblings of Blaxploitation in the US. Ivan’s taste for cars, nice clothes, women and guns is more in line with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft, both released in 1971, than the western outlaws he models himself on.

For all its debts to the gangster film and the western, The Harder They Come is at heart a musical. The soundtrack is blessedly Marley-free. You have ‘Pressure Drop’ by The Maytals, a track so electrifying it’s used several times in the film. There’s ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by Desmond Dekker, who had one of the first reggae hits, in 1968, with the haunting Israelites. There’s Cliff’s previous hits ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ and ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, and he sings the title track too. The deepest cut, though, might be Scotty’s ‘Draw Your Brakes’, a dub version of a 1967 rocksteady track. It’s cavernous, atmospheric, druggy and irresistible.

Reggae is mostly characterised as good-time music, but as Lester Bangs wrote in a 1976 piece, this belies the underlying violence. “Many of these records may be little more than a rhythm with a guitar chopping out two or three chords, no solos except a guy hollering things you can barely understand over the whole thing; but that rhythm is rock steady, the guitars chop to kill, and the singer is, often as not, describing class oppression or street war." Keep this in mind and you’ll find Dekker singing “dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail" or even something as simple as Toots Hibbert accusingly going “It is youuuuuuu" assume a great urgency.

The Harder They Come isn’t a smooth film, but it doesn’t matter because it’s exhilarating. Henzell has an eye for striking images and the quicksilver editing feeds on the chaotic energy of the lead character. It’s on a short list of films—Black Orpheus and Buena Vista Social Club are two others—that introduced the world to an entire musical culture. While this is a wholly deserved reputation, it tends to underrate the effectiveness of the film itself. In moments like the ecstatic church scene with a few mischievous inserts of human desire, or the chase through the ghetto with a group of children cheering on a pistol-brandishing Ivan, The Harder They Come isn’t just a great reggae film but a great film, period.

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