When I say reggae music, surely one name comes immediately to mind. Bob Marley popularized the music of his country. He made that symbolic down beat a staple of every discotheque and pot circle in America. Most people think that Bob Marley was the first person to make reggae a thing in alternative circles. But that is not true. If you were a cinephile in the early seventies, you knew there was only one answer to the first instance of reggae played by purely Jamaican players present in America. The Harder They Come burst through the film festival circuit and became an underground sensation, thus giving us our first exposure to not only reggae music played by Jamaicans, but also reggae culture a full year before Bob Marley released his debut album. For this reason and a couple of others this film has become just as essential as other underground films from this era.
Ivan journeys to Kingston from the country. He has grand ambitions to become a reggae singer. From the moment he arrives in the big bad city, his naiveté starts to show. Within a couple of minutes of getting off the bus, everything he owns is stolen. He visits his mother who has nothing to give him except for a minister’s card. He records a single at a recording company and is only paid twenty dollars. Out of desperation, he begins to peddle Jamaica’s number one export, on the streets. When he shoots a couple of police officers out of self-defense, he is then made to go on the run. He utilizes his new-found infamy to become a folk here, graffiting messages on the walls of buildings to cops. The press eats up every angle including beautiful portraits of him holding twin guns and squatting like an old style gangster. His single climbs the chart and he earns the record producer some serious cash. He has achieved the fame he was hungry for, but at what cost?
Perry Henzell, the director, shot in the slums of Kingston while using a documentary style. This gives the film a gritty realism that is hard to top. The acting may not be amazing and the plot is something out of the American blaxploitation genre, but everything is grounded in the realistic plight of everyone around Ivan. We get a glimpse of how impoverished Kingston inhabitants live their daily lives. They are forced to reside in flimsy one room shacks, hunt for food in garbage cans and peddle drugs in order to get by. No one is looking out for them and no one seems to care for them. Ivan is taken advantage of at every turn. At one point he under the employ of a minister. The minister has him working with a shady man in a repair shop of some kind. Ivan fishes a bicycle out of the garbage and works for weeks to get it in tip-top shape. After he is fired, he goes back for his bicycle. The man he was working with now says that since he is no longer employed that it is no longer his bicycle. He claims the bicycle as his own. This man’s instincts to scramble for everything and take what isn’t him is an instinct that he had to learn the hard way. After this incident, Ivan learns the same harsh lessons about survival. He must achieve what he wants to achieve at any cost and by any means necessary. This is not your typical view of Jamaica now is it?
The music in this film reminded me why I like reggae music. It can be hard to justify or even still like a genre when it has been co-opted by out of touch neo-hippies that wear tie dye and talk to you about the golden lion. Once you are given context to the music you are hearing and you see the ways in which a maligned population can express itself, the music becomes alive again. The soundtrack in this film is really great. Ivan is played by a respected reggae singer, Jimmy Cliff. His songs litter the plot and keep it grounded in artistic realism. They even reflect events from Jimmy Cliff’s real life and his experiences growing up in Kingston. If you want to find a new appreciation for reggae music then I would suggest watching this film.