The Harder They Come (1972)

Genres - Crime  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Musical Drama, Urban Drama, Showbiz Drama  |   Release Date - Sep 5, 2013 (USA - Rerelease)  |   Run Time - 98 min.  |   Countries - Jamaica  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Mark Deming

The ganja-fueled peace-and-love vibes of Bob Marley's best-known work have come to define reggae music in the minds of most Americans, but much of Jamaica's most potent music reflects a darker and tougher spirit that speaks of life in the Kingston slums where reggae first took root. Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come was the first independent feature film produced in Jamaica, and gave many Americans their first taste of reggae music; it's also a hard-edged story of poverty, crime, and outlaw culture that plays like a West Indian corollary to the classic gangster films of the '30s and '40s. Even though Jimmy Cliff had never acted before, he's superb and thoroughly convincing as Ivan, the country bumpkin turned public enemy who represents the flip side of every heartwarming story about the naïve kid who makes it big in the music business; and while Perry Henzell's directorial technique is rough around the edges, it captures both the grit and the deadly stakes of Kingston street life with the casual power of a hidden-camera documentary. Ivan's story never fails to ring true (the scene where Ivan is offered a mere 20 dollars by a sleazy record producer for cutting his first single was based on Cliff's own early experiences; Bob Marley got the same deal for his first session), and if anything, this tale of a musician who rises to the top of the charts on the strength of his criminal record is even more relevant in the wake of the well-publicized legal troubles of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Puff Daddy, and other hip-hop stars. (It's a shame no one thought to star Tupac Shakur in a remake.) And the throbbing pulse of the film's music is powerfully hypnotic; after watching the chase scene edited to Toots & the Maytals' classic "Pressure Drop," you'll have a hard time imaging the song wasn't written for this film. Viewers should be aware, though, that some recent home-video releases of The Harder They Come are missing the periodic subtitles that were added for the film's initial U.S. release; while in English, the thick accents and heavy patois of some of the characters render them all but incomprehensible to American viewers.