Perfect Sound Forever


The film that put reggae on the map
by Eric Doumerc
(August 2018)

The Harder They Come, by Perry Henzell, was released in 1972 and is considered to be the most important feature film ever to come out of Jamaica. The film told the story of Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), a young man from the country who migrated to Kingston in the late 1960's/early 1970's, only to join the mass of unemployed migrants in the West Kingston slums. On arrival, Ivan is told by his grandmother that he cannot expect any help from her, but she nevertheless gives him the address of a clergyman who will be able to help him. The clergyman, known as Preacher (Basil Keane), takes Ivan under his wing and employs him in his yard, giving him odd jobs to do.

Ivan soon settles down to his new life, repairs an old bicycle to get around, and starts courting Elsa (Janet Bartley), the preacher's ward, whom we learn the clergyman expects one day to marry. Ivan and Elsa become an item, but Ivan has his mind set on dream: he wants to make it in the music business and does the round of the local studios to record his tune. The exploitative rates offered by Jamaican producers are exposed in the film, with Hilton (Bob Charlton), the main producer, telling him that he will never get more than 20 dollars for his song. Ivan is forced to accept the producer's terms and records his tune, "The Harder They Come", at Leslie Kong's studio. But Hilton refuses to distribute his 45 too widely as he considers him as a dangerous agitator.

Meanwhile, Ivan started making some money by selling ganja and joined a group of hustlers. One of them, Josť (Carl Bradshaw), is the leader and initiates Ivan into the trade. But Ivan wants it all now and realises that the small hustlers are ripped off by the big drug traffickers, and starts asking for a bigger slice of the cake. One day, Ivan is chased by two motorcycle cops, shoots one of them, and then has to go into hiding. Then he shoots another policeman, and becomes a kind of folk hero when Hilton releases his tune and the radio stations start playing it. Ivan has achieved his dream: he is now famous and has made it in the music business. But he is also a wanted man, and the police pressure the small hustlers to turn him in by putting an end to the drug trade. The final confrontation between Ivan and the police takes place on a North Coast beach as Ivan tries to board a ship bound for Cuba. But he is too weak to swim back to the shore , where the army awaits him. The final duel is staged like a spaghetti western and echoes a scene at the beginning of the film during which Ivan and Josť watch an Italian western at the Rio cinema in Kingston.

The film had a massive impact in Jamaica as it was filmed on location with non-professional actors who spoke in Jamaican Creole. People felt that their very lives were being portrayed on screen. The Jamaican literary critic Kwame Dawes wrote that he was too young to be allowed to see the film when it was first released in June 1972, but his brother who had been old enough to be let in told him the story. Years later, when he finally got to see the flim, Dawes realised that his brother had faithfully told him about every detail of the film and had even memorised whole lines of dialogue. Such is the strength of the oral tradition.

But the film also divided public opinion in Jamaica at the time, on account of its supposedly graphic protrayal of violence, drug trafficking, and police corruption. Indeed, the film portrayed a side of Jamaican life that the tourist industry had been assiduously tring to avoid publicizing, and, as was pointed out by the actor Peter Cushing at the Cork film festival in Ireland, it was very brave of Jamaica to publicly show that side of its culture. The film received an award at that festival. As pointed out by the Guyanese literary critic Gordon Rohlehr, the film got a negative review in the influential Jamaican publication The Gleaner, on account of its supposed glorification of violence and insistence on the gritty aspect of Jamacian life. In an article published in the magazine Tapia, Gordon Rohlehr took the opposite view and explained that The Harder They Come precisely looked at the mechanisms and tensions in Jamaican society which had led to the emergence of a character like Rhygin, the 1940's gunman whose life story provided the storyline for the film. According to Rohlehr, the film looked at the social and economic problems which had produced the violence depicted on the screen without glorifying that violence. The film made an impact abroad too, and was shown in English-speaking countries with subtitles as Jamaican Creole is used throughout the film.

In 1972, Island Records put out the soundtrack to the film in Britain, and it became available in the USA one year later, in 1973. This LP is widely acknowledged today as being one of the most important albums which contributed to popularising reggae with non-Jamaican audiences. The soundtrack contained four tracks by Jimmy Cliff ("Many Rivers to Cross", "Sitting in Limbo", "The Harder They Come", and "You Can Get It If You Really Want"), one track by the Melodians ("Rivers of Babylon"), two by the Maytals ("Pressure Drop" and "Sweet and Dandy"), one by The Slickers ("Johnny Too Bad"), one by Desmmond Dekker ("007") and one by Scotty ("Draw Your Brakes").

The songs featured on the soundtrack were not chosen at random and meshed very well with certain key scenes in the film. For instance, the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon" plays in the background in the scene when Ivan, the exiled countryman, is told by his grandmother that there is little she can do for him. The theme of the song is the Israelites' exile in Babylon, and thus the song echoes the sentimental pathos of the scene. Likewise, the Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad" plays on the radio during a scene when Ivan is told by his fellow apprentice in the yard that he has a pretty hat on and only needs a gun now to look like Johnny Too Bad. Jimmy Cliff's song, "The Harder They Come", is featured in a key scene when Ivan records the song, and conveys the rage and frustation simmering in Ivan's heart. "Many Rivers to Cross" may be the only song which looks or sounds slightly out of place, as it contains references to the white cliffs of Dover whereas Ivan is walking on a beach in Jamaica! The song was written while Cliff was going through a rough patch in Britain in the late 1960's (thus the reference to Dover).

The songs which appear on the soundtrack were in fact rock steady hits in the late 1960's, and are all great examples of that musical genre. They featured an early-reggae sound and rushed tempo which made them popular with a foreign audience. Several tracks were by well-known harmony trios (the Maytals, the Melodians, the Aces, the Slickers), which shows the popularity of that form at the time.

The soundtrack is also notable for the presence of an early deejay tune, "Draw Your Brakes" by Scotty, which is a version of the rock steady song "Stop That Train" by the duo Keith and Tex (Keith Rowe and Tex Dixon), produced by Derrick Harriott. The original tune is a shining example of the rock steady sound,with beautiful vocals and a chugging rhythm, but Scotty's version probably introduced American and European audiences to Jamaican deejay music for the first time. The song is ironically featured in one of the first scenes of the film when Ivan gets off the bus at the coach station and has his belongings stolen. The song is also meant to symbolise the brash, new sound of urban Jamaica at the time. "007 (Shanty Town)" by Desmond Dekker is of course another wonderful example of the rock steady sound.

The songs were recorded in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and only one of them, "Rivers of Babylon", can be said to have a Rastafarian influence per se.

The soundtrack to The Harder They Come thus represents a snapshot of Jamaican music before reggae became a vehicle for Rastafarianism, and before Bob Marley and the Wailers broke reggae internationally with their Catch A Fire album. But that's another story...


Dawes, Kwame. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1999.

Rohlehr, Gordon. "Once in a Blue Sun: Review of The Harder They Come", in My Strangled City and Other Essays. Port-of-Spain: Longman, 1992.

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