'The Harder They Come' continues to illuminate the vitality of Jamaican arts and culture within the landscape of cult cinema 50 years later.
When Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come premiered in Kingston, Jamaica in the Summer of 1972, few pundits could have predicted the groundbreaking musical drama’s crossover power on the midnight movie circuit and the continued legacy of the film’s naturalistic grit and now-iconic soundtrack.
By both providing a window into the daily life of a burgeoning artist in Jamaica and helping to popularize Reggae music in the international consciousness, The Harder They Come transcended the trappings of low-budget cinema to receive a large and vibrant cult following for decades to come.
Ebbing and flowing between the blue-collar focus of neorealist storytelling and the thrilling trappings of crime cinema that populated grindhouse cinemas throughout the 1970s, Henzell’s effortlessly atmospheric style transforms The Harder They Come into complicated collage of cultural references that never condescends to its diverse international audience.
Instead, Henzell and the film’s star Jimmy Cliff maximize the emotional sway of Reggae music as both a propulsive soundtrack and a tonal foundation for the varied exploits of Ivanhoe Martin, an anti-heroic protagonist loosely based on the life of a Jamaican criminal of the same name.
Through Henzell’s naturalistic direction, Jimmy Cliff’s multilayered meta performance, and especially the masterful soundtrack featuring reggae icons like Toots and The Maytals and Desmond Decker, The Harder They Come continues to illuminate the vitality of Jamaican arts and culture within the landscape of cult cinema 50 years later.
Across the gloriously grainy sixteen-millimeter visuality of The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell and his team of cinematographers — Peter Jessop, David McDonald, and Franklyn St. Juste — work together to capture the captivating vibrancy of Jamaican landscapes in conjunction with the textures of the central character’s mundane experiences.
From traffic jams on narrow bridges to recording sessions in a Kingston music studio and even a marvelously meta trip to a movie theater to see the spaghetti western Django on the big screen, Henzell and company prioritize the casual rhythms of existence over the heaviness of plotting, freeing the film from the constraints of narrative heaviness.
In addition to providing meaningful atmosphere and local texture to the storytelling trajectory of The Harder They Come, Henzell’s poetic visual approach also demystifies the persistence of colonialism in 1970s Jamaica.
By indirectly critiquing the imperialist impact of church life and policing on the landscape of midcentury Kingston, The Harder They Come comments on the impact of colonial meddling in Jamaica without descending into didactic explanation or thematic heaviness.
Furthermore, the haunting worship service and baptism sequences as well as the prison-set scene of bodily punishment early in the film reveal colonialism as a ghost that looms over the public spaces and personal behavior within Martin’s story.
While it is essential to acknowledge Henzell’s sensitive approach to colonial structures within the film, it is equally important to elevate The Harder They Come as a joyful celebration of artistic expression and personal liberation.
By placing Reggae icon Jimmy Cliff at the center of the film as a meta fusion of himself and the infamous yet often mythologized criminal Vincent “Ivanhoe” Martin, Henzell gives the film a beating heart and a burning passion. Through his emotionally complex and endlessly cool portrayal of Ivanhoe Martin, Jimmy Cliff pushes the limits of movie stardom to reinvent a protagonist that feels equally fit for arthouse fare and blockbuster filmmaking.
Transitioning between acts of necessary desperation in a scene riffing on Vittorio De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves and both the confident performances and stylish dance sessions in the film’s central musical sequences, Cliff manages to make Ivanhoe equally human and mythic without disrupting the film’s naturalistic tone.
Above all else, the true staying power and lasting legacy of The Harder They Come is the film’s genre-defining soundtrack, which rocketed Reggae music into the international zeitgeist. From the opening horn-fueled happiness of “You Can Get It if You Really Want” to the repeated thematic use of the titular track, Henzell empowers the film to serve as a vehicle for Jimmy Cliff’s original music in addition to acting as an introduction point for the musician’s public stardom.
Beyond Cliff’s brilliant tracks, The Harder They Come remains consistently populated with timeless earworms like Toots and The Maytal’s politically charged yet smashingly percussive “Pressure Drop” and The Melodians’ subversively biblical “Rivers of Babylon.” Perhaps the most culturally fascinating and critically potent song featured on the soundtrack is Desmond Decker’s “007 (Shanty Town),” which interweave the performative coolness of James Bond with a colonial critique of the British empire that he represents to encapsulate the “rude boy” culture at the core of Reggae music.
In fact, The Harder They Come’s critique of classism and elevation of antiestablishment behavior through Cliff’s Ivanhoe Martin helped set the foundation for Kingston’s “rude boy” subculture, which served as a predecessor for the international punk movements that would follow in the late seventies.
Even as The Harder They Come wrestles with heavier themes surrounding the imperialist influences on island culture and the tragic effects of punitive classism and policing on the film’s protagonist, Henzell’s cult classic continues to be a vital vocalization of Reggae’s international power and the overall cultural import of Jamaican artists.
Rather than allowing Ivanhoe Martin’s tragic trajectory to derail the film’s triumphant sociocultural prowess, Henzell’s focus on a figure dancing to the politically charged lyrics of the titular song recenters The Harder They Come as an ongoing statement of ideological progression towards international equity. While a more overtly arthouse film may over-politicize the film’s themes and a blockbuster feature may avoid both the cultural specificities and satirical edge, the cult cinema grit of The Harder They Come has helped to propel the film across the public consciousness for five decades.
By helping to launch the career of Jimmy Cliff as a founder of Reggae music and a chief talent maker who helped discover Bob Marley, the impact of The Harder They Come transcends the cinematic medium to encapsulate a key moment in the collective culture and musical development of 1970s Jamaica.
Although the film beautifully wears its seventies aesthetic through the grainy neorealist filmmaking and almost new wave-style editing, the political core and musical soul of The Harder They Come remains a timeless reflection of collective creative freedom.