Hall of Records

Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come

by Michael Tatum

Released: July 7, 1972 (Island)

The last five words on the looming billboard that Ivan reads after the bus unloads him onto the busy Kingston street -- "See Phillip Waite for a better life" -- should be warning enough that he won't find success in the big city. His destitute mother has nothing to offer him, and a construction company turns him down for being unskilled, so after a few days begging in the street for spare change and menial work, he falls into the dubious auspices of "the Preacher," a bullying evangelist who hires him for odd jobs. The Preacher symbolizes all of the ideology that many poor young Jamaicans see as counterintuitive to the reality of their daily plight: in one scene, he reads from Matthew 6:28, the passage about the "lilies of the field," the section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus preaches that God will provide for those who need. But its passivity isn't enough to suit Ivan -- the song he later writes, "The Harder They Come," directly protests that sentiment: "Well, they tell me about a pie in the sky/Waiting for me when I die/But between the day you're born and when you die/They never seem to hear even your cry." In a scene rife with symbolism, the Preacher catches Ivan secretly practicing the song in the church after dark via a key given to him by the Preacher's adopted daughter, who Ivan has been slyly courting -- and in whom it is implied the clergyman has a vested sexual interest.

Later, through a connection from the Preacher, Ivan meets Hilton, a jaded record producer who agrees to release "The Harder They Come" provided Ivan sign away the publishing rights for a mere twenty dollars. Ivan initially refuses, but then reneges when he realizes Hilton's monopoly on the various arms of the music industry means getting his song heard by alternate means is impossible. Frustrated in the realization he won't be an overnight success, and humiliated at the hands of the local police, who whip him bare bottomed in front of the station -- an act that darkly suggests the role of the imperialist has changed hands from the colonialists to the locals -- Ivan becomes a marijuana courier, which in a turn of events Roger Ebert described as "implausible," leads him to killing several policeman. At the movie's climax, the police finally track down Ivan to a deserted beach, where, out of ammunition, he brandishes his revolvers and charges his pursuers, who shower him with a torrent of bullets. As they do, Ivan imagines himself as the anti-hero of the spaghetti western he saw with his cheering friends toward the beginning of the movie -- "Star Boy can't die until the last reel," he rationalizes before the law takes him down. Meanwhile, the only person who comes out on top is the slimy Hilton, who capitalizes on Ivan's notoriety to sell a shitload of records: "Do me a favor," he cynically tells the police when the press him for information about Ivan's whereabouts. "You tell me when you catch him, so I can get him to make another record for me before you string him up."

That in a nutshell is the plot summary of Perry Henzell's 1972 Jamaican crime drama The Harder They Come, which as it happens was also the first way that many Americans heard reggae music. Indebted not only to spaghetti westerns but also to Blaxploitation films -- an aesthetic decision Ebert found regrettable -- the low budget vehicle is hardly perfect (in one scene, Ivan chases the friend who he thinks betrayed him with a six-gun revolver that magically fires seven shots). But Henzell justifies the troublesome moral implications of his protagonist's actions by suggesting not only that rude boys turn to crime because they crave the instant gratification of girls and drugs and money, but also because they find Christianity's "suffer on Earth/get rewarded in heaven" philosophy spiritually wanting. The songs, which function as running side commentary, continually underscore this -- the optimism of "You Can Get It If You Really Want" (repeated twice, as it is on the album) is later turned upside down as Ivan realizes the cards have been stacked against him: by Hilton, by the Preacher, and by Kingston itself. "Sweet and Dandy," lip-synced in Hilton's studio by the great Toots and the Maytals as Ivan looks longingly behind the glass, is about a party preceding a wedding, a cruel reminder to Ivan that he won't be able to marry Elsa, the Preacher's shy daughter, unless he can find some way to record that song he's been carrying around in his back pocket. The cool detachment of the killer "Johnny Too Bad," which Ivan grooves to as he repairs bicycles for the Preacher, begins as a rude boy celebration of robbing-stabbing-looting-shooting, but also serves as a prescient warning: "One of these days when you hear a voice say come/Where you gonna run to/You gonna run to the rock for rescue/There will be no rock." And the comeuppance of the title song doesn't merely apply to the "oppressors," but eventually, also to Ivan himself, whose crimes lead to his ignominious end: "The harder they come/The harder they fall/One and all."

Henzell, a member of the white minority in Jamaica, struggled to assemble the money to make this movie for many years. The involvement of Island Record's Chris Blackwell was a decisive moment -- not only did that mean an influx of needed funds, but it also meant that Henzell had carte blanche to use a wealth of recordings for the soundtrack, as Island owned the rights to a staggering amount of Jamaican music (in fact, Island's subdivision coincidentally shares the name of the lucky fruit Ivan brings his mother from his grandmother's home in the country: the mango). There were a few other fortuitous breaks -- the involvement of black Jamaican playright Trevor D. Rhone, who encouraged that the script evolve organically, through improvisation, and that it would incorporate Patois, a native lingual blend of English and West African influences, as well as Carl Bradshaw, a schoolteacher turned actor who played a pivotal role as Ivan's streetwise benefactor JosÚ. But it all came together when Henzell intercepted Jimmy Cliff in the studio recording the effervescent pep talk "You Can Get It If You Really Want" to play Ivanhoe Martin. What was it in Cliff that convinced Henzell that the reggae star would be persuasive in the role of a na´ve country boy turned rollicking gangster, so gleeful in his sociopathy he stays cheerful even as he chases his hustling mentor down a teeming street, gun blazing? Henzell claims it was one of the songs used in the movie, the absolutely gorgeous "Many Rivers to Cross," a song so stirring in its evocation of hope and longing it could almost be mistaken for a homegrown gospel hymn (in fact, that was the idea, which is why Cliff incorporated swelling organ and call-and-respond female vocalists into the arrangement). But I also suspect that Henzell was banking that Cliff's charisma would make Ivan a more or less sympathetic character -- capable of eliciting sympathy as a struggling rural bumpkin trying to make good in the unforgiving crucible of Kingston, yet perversely likable even as he holds up a photographer at gunpoint to take ostensible "publicity shots," cockily brandishing revolvers in each hand, to be delivered to story-hungry newspaper editors.

Of course, the other plus in bringing Cliff on board is that Henzell would have the green light to use all that marvelous music. The soundtrack to The Harder They Come amounts to a veritable four-song Cliff best-of augmented by six other golden-age reggae goodies, which is unquestionably what must have been percolating in the back of Blackwell's mind -- indeed, this was the record that broke reggae commercially stateside, even before Bob Marley, who wouldn't quite erupt into America's consciousness until Eric Clapton's 1974 cover of "I Shot the Sherrif" paved the way for the solo debut Natty Dread in 1975. But where that album, and its predecessors featuring the original Wailers, really do sound exotic, Cliff's songs recall distinctly familiar American antecedents: Stax-Volt on "You Can Get It If You Really Want," gospel on "Many Rivers to Cross," singer-songwriter pop on the gorgeous "Sitting in Limbo." Only the title track boasts the familiar chunka-chunk syncopation associated with reggae, but even there the song is so wide-eyed and ebullient it feels light years from what was really going on in Jamaica at the time, i.e. Scotty's "Draw Your Breaks," a re-write of the standard "Stop That Train" that appears early in the film, far slower and spacier than Cliff's offerings, closer to what King Tubby and Lee Perry were beginning to do in the subgenre that would come to be known as "dub." In fact, aside from the pointless reprise of two Cliff songs at the end (padding a thirty-five minute LP to an even forty), the positioning of "Draw Your Breaks" early in the album's sequencing is one of its only flaws -- it's just much too jarring after the pure uplift of "You Can Get it If You Really Want."

We're lucky this album exists -- granted, sparking jewels like the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon," an appropriation of Psalms 19 and 137 that sneaks Rastafarianism through the back door, or the Maytals' endlessly repeatable "Pressure Drop," have been anthologized to death. But it's absolute magic to hear these songs in this order -- the rare soundtrack that's as miraculous in the comfort of your living room as it is on the screen. And this album came at the right time for Cliff, who notoriously was never able to parlay his success in this film into an enduring music career (though I guess getting screwed over for royalties by Chris Blackwell is preferable to being shot by Kingston law enforcement). Then again, the positive vibes of his four songs here would have been impossible for anyone to sustain -- I'm reminded that "You Can Get It If You Really Want" recalls Sly's "You Can Make It If You Try," and we all know how long that burst of optimism lasted. But the out-of-print 2003 deluxe edition of this classic, which contains another disc's worth of comparable reggae from the period and is now selling now at collector's prices, completes Cliff's picture with two crucial early songs: the heaven-sent "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and the painfully direct "Viet Nam," the latter of which Bob Dylan described as the best protest song he'd ever heard. Really, Marley may have quantity (along with everything else) on his side, but I'm not sure if even the great man himself got off six songs this incandescent. For a whole glorious side of a record, the world puts up resistance, but his faith leads us on.

July 25, 2014, Odyshape