I’m interested enough in reggae to have recently read a Bob Marley biography — and to own at least one reggae record that’s not by Bob Marley. But until last night, I’d never seen this 1972 cult classic that played a huge role in introducing the music to international audiences.
It’s not a great movie, but it is a fascinating one.
The interest lies only partly in the actual story, which is a conventional crime melodrama about a country kid (played by Jimmy Cliff) who comes to the big city (played by Kingston) with big dreams, only to be maneuvered by circumstance into a life of crime. Our hero, Ivan, is neither angel nor devil, but somewhat deluded about his odds of becoming a recording star. And by the final shootout, he’s fancying himself an Old West hero.
And of course, Cliff’s character has been immortalized, in countless posters and soundtrack-album covers, not to mention on London Calling (whose track “The Guns of Brixton” gives a shout-out to the film.)
But if director Perry Henzell romanticizes outlawry, he never does the film’s settings. This was the first feature made in Jamaica, and so much of the film is shot in the streets, and with nonprofessional actors, that it feels half a documentary, from the jitney bus that brings Ivan to Kingston on down. The story takes place on busy streets, in fruit stalls, shantytowns, a poor Christian church, a nightclub, a recording studio. And then there are all those faces: hustlers, gamblers, dancers, ganja dealers, street vendors and even a couple dreadlock Rastas.
It feels like at least a taste of the real Kingston circa 1970, at a time when most Americans thought of Jamaica as nothing but a resort island. And there are, in fact, jarring glimpses of a wealthier Jamaica, in a bosky estate where Ivan fruitlessly seeks work and, later, in the tourist hotel where Ivan, on the run (but decked out in hipster finery), steals a Cadillac and takes it for an iconic spin on the golf course.
Needless to say, the soundtrack is fantastic, featuring Cliff numbers including the title track and “You Can Get It If You Really Want It,” plus Toots and the Maytalls' “Pressure Drop” stuff by The Melodians, The Slickers and Desmond Dekker. The tight close-up on Ivan passionately singing the title tune in the studio — finally getting his big break — is alone worth at least half the $9 price of admission.
The Harder They Come, in a restored 40th-anniversary version, gets its final two screenings here tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Regent Square Theater is at 1035 S. Braddock Ave., in Edgewood.