Yesterday marked the 53rd anniversary of Jamaican independence. More professional websites might have thought this through and reviewed a Jamaican movie yesterday. They might even have bothered to put a joke in their opening paragraph.
A similar level of amateurism pervades Jamaican crime classic The Harder They Come, credited with bringing reggae to a global audience in 1972; the music is anything but amateur. Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a young singer trying to break out of poverty and into music. This allows for the same three or four reggae songs to play all the way through the film, probably for budgetary reasons; it doesn’t look like filmmaker Perry Henzell had much money at his disposal. The low production values mean that it’s hard to understand the dialogue, between the strong Jamaican dialect and all the traffic noise.
Despite its technical drawbacks, a clear picture of Jamaica emerges through a thick haze of smoke. This is an invaluable time-capsule of the Caribbean nation, which had only gained independence from colonial Britain ten years earlier. Henzell offers an authentic insight into the country, filming inside its crime-ridden slums where people smoke like Smaug himself. But most importantly, the film exhibits the country’s phenomenal music.
The soundtrack played a major part in popularising reggae outside Jamaica, featuring Desmond Dekker, The Maytals and of course Jimmy Cliff; very much the James Brown of reggae. He’s incredibly charismatic and a great performer, not to mention sharply dressed. The title track is beautiful, with its poetic and political lyrics; “I’d rather be a free man in my grave / than living as a puppet or a slave.” It’s been covered by everyone from sub-Sublime ska-punkers Knock-Out to king of the hippies and ice cream enthusiast Jerry Garcia.
Though it borders on incoherence, The Harder They Come is an important document of post-colonial Jamaica. Famous for its wonderful music, it’s Scarface with reggae. Or Rastamouse with humans.