Before every dorm across the country housed a semi-stoned wannabe bohemian with a Bob Marley poster and the ability to strum the chords to “Redemption Song”, reggae music was a very niche market that didn’t make it far off the island of Jamaica, mainly creeping into Jamaican neighborhoods on the outskirts of London. That changed in 1972 with the release of the crime drama The Harder They Come from co-writer and director Perry Henzell. Starring reggae music star Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come pulls its inspiration from the real life Jamaican criminal known as Rhyging, though it’s not the violent anti-hero that built the film’s reputation but its phenomenal reggae soundtrack featuring music by Cliff and many other reggae legends. The Harder They Come is widely credited with popularizing reggae music beyond the borders of Jamaica and now the film finally arrives on Blu-ray with a three-disc special edition from Shout! Factory that provides the gritty drama with a pristine new transfer and a slew of bonus features that examine the film’s legacy.
Ivanhoe Martin (Cliff) has just travelled from the countryside to the bustling city of Kingston. Though traveling to the city to tell his mother about his grandmother’s passing, Ivan has big dreams for his life in the city. However, his mother has no place for him to stay and finding work proves to be an impossible task. The impossibility of finding gainful employment plays out in a simple yet heartbreaking sequence of Ivan roaming the streets of Kingston and facing relentless rejection as Cliff’s own rendition of “Many Rivers To Cross” gives the scene its melancholy score. It’s a scene that establishes The Harder They Come as a film that doesn’t find inherent nobility in poverty, but human tragedy. You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if there’s nowhere else to go.
Eventually Ivan roams into a compound run by a local preacher (Basil Keane), though the stern man of God finds little to admire about his new hire. The preacher sees no time for petty distractions such as Ivan repairing a broken down bicycle. His free time should only be spent reading the scriptures. The already tense relationship between Ivan and the preacher gets further strained once Ivan sets his sights on Elsa (Janet Bartley), a young woman who has been under the preacher’s guardianship since childhood. Despite his paternal role, the preacher has his sights set on Elsa. Ivan and Elsa are removed from preacher’s compound after their affair has been revealed, and the young couple struggles to survive in impoverished conditions. Once again, Hanzell and co-writer Trevor D. Rhone examine the relentless despair of poverty, as Elsa works long hours for low wages and Ivan struggles to find work.
However, Ivan has just gotten his big break and is set to record a song for Hilton (Bob Charlton), the music mogul who runs the entire music scene on the island. Brimming with youthful self-confidence, Ivan is certain he’s got it made. All his worries are in the past. The headstrong Ivan records “The Harder They Come” and is sure that his track is destined to be a hit. When offered only 20 dollars for the record, Ivan holds out for more money. No other label in town will touch something that the all-powerful Hilton has passed on, and eventually the young man comes back to accept the twenty dollars. Because he dared to stand up to Hilton, Ivan is quickly blacklisted from the Jamaican music scene. This is the first notable instance where Ivan is confronted with the brash corruption that runs through the industry he sees as his salvation. His big break was nothing more than a blip. Regardless of great his song is he will never make another record because he tried to buck the inequitable system.
The mounting financial desperation pushes Ivan into the illicit marijuana trade, and there he finds himself engulfed in another world of corruption. A world where there’s no honor among thieves as police and hoodlums alike swap information and payoffs to stay afloat. All the lies and corruption make a few a fortune and leaves behind death for many others. Ivan has his rendezvous with death when an associate tries to double cross him. Things turn deadly. In a short time, Ivan becomes a failed musician-turned-drug runner and his violent exploits make him an unusual folk hero. Hilton brings Ivan’s song out of mothballs where it finds new life as an unexpected hit. Meanwhile, the law understands the need to take down the defiant criminal who has now become a populist icon. But it doesn’t matter if your Ivanhoe Martin, Jesse James, or Rhyging. Populist criminals that capture the public imagination always meet the same fate.
The Harder They Come was the first Jamaican film to make its way off the island, and it did take a while for the film to find distribution after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Famed producer Roger Corman bought the American film rights for his New World Pictures. Once the soundtrack became a phenomenon on its own, the film exploded in popularity and built a cult following. It’s a minor miracle that the film played well in America considering the film is best watched with subtitles to help better understand the dialogue through the thick Jamaican accents. This new Shout! Factory Blu-ray of the film does have perfectly transcribed subtitles that doesn’t alter the lexicon of its Jamaican characters, retaining the film’s authenticity while making it possible to understand what’s being said.
The soundtrack for The Harder They Come more than lives up to the hype. It’s an incredible collection of reggae music before the music genre became overrun with a lazy, uninspired dedication to marijuana. Jimmy Cliff is the star of the soundtrack too as he performs such classics as “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “Many Rivers to Cross”, and the film’s title track. Other reggae legend contribute such as Toots & the Maytals performing “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop”. Desmond Dekker delivers the perfect combination of a laid back sound with earnest lyrics about impoverished life with “007 (Shanty Town)” and The Slickers provide the film with thematic depth with their performance of “Johnny Too Bad”. It’s a perfect soundtrack that illustrates the full potential of the reggae genre before it was diluted and homogenized by white imitators and unimaginative record executives.
Shout! Factory didn’t skimp on the special features for their edition of The Harder They Come, with three discs of content old and new. The original 16mm print of the film was given a glorious 4K restoration, and features a new audio commentary track by author David Katz. Perry Henzell’s follow up film, the long lost No Place Like Home, was also restored from its 16mm elements, and that film also boasts a new commentary track by Sally Henzell, David Garonzik, Cookie Kinkaed, And Arthur Gorson. Then there’s a third disc jam-packed with special features, including documentaries and interviews. The sheer volume of special features on this Shout! Factory release is incredible, dwarfing the features that were on the Criterion Collection DVD from a few years ago.
The Harder They Come is a landmark work of cinema, a film that helped expand understanding about a corner of the world often ignored. It’s a film that exists within the crime genre but also features a heart about the hardships of living in an impoverished, forgotten corner of the world. The film’s legacy will always be tied to its revolutionary soundtrack, but the film is strong enough to stand on its own. Finally, it lands on Blu-ray with an incredible special edition that honors its very complex legacy.
The Harder They Come
The Jamaican film classic The Harder They Come finally arrives on Blu-ray with a new 4K transfer in a magnificent three-disc edition from Shout! Factory that examines the impact and legacy of Perry Henzell’s film.