The Harder They Come is built on an oft-told tale—a young man is forced into a life of crime when the corrupt society around him won’t give him an honest chance. But with its hip reggae soundtrack, this rewrite is unlike any version that came before.
Cocky songwriter Ivanhoe Martin travels from the Jamaican countryside to Kingston with dreams of riches and fame, but instead of finding opportunity, he’s tricked, stolen from, beaten up, and cheated. His brash attitude puts him in conflict with business and religious leaders, the dope dealers he hooks up with, and the police—and he becomes a hunted outlaw, a folk hero, and a pop star at the same time.
The film features real-life musician Jimmy Cliff and 1970s Jamaica. The country was no more than a decade into being independent, and the corruption that grew during colonial rule was still widespread throughout the nation. The movie is about that corruption, and the real-life locations where the movie was filmed reinforce the reality of the story with scenes of true poverty and wealth in an unequal land.
Jimmy Cliff is magnetic onscreen, and he will not be intimidated or broken. Watching the film, it’s easy to see how Ivan was an inspiration for white suburban punks like The Clash. “I'd rather be a free man in my grave/than living as a puppet or a slave,” he sings in the song The Harder They Come.
Hearing the soundtrack, it’s also clear why The Clash, The Police, Elvis Costello, and apparently everyone else were writing reggae tunes after the movie was re-released in 1977. It’s wonderful music.
Watch it on Kanopy.