I’ll bet you didn’t know that I play the bass (the instrument, not the fish), did you? It’s true. I wouldn’t say folks like Geddy Lee or Chris Squire would be shaking in their boots upon hearing my musical skills, but for what they are, I’m not horrible. Of course, I can’t read sheet music for squat, but my ear is fairly keen, and I can keep rhythm. I even built my own upright, four-string, washtub bass (there are some issues with the foot peg that still need to be ironed out, but it works and actually sounds pretty darned good, if I do say so myself). So, what does any of this have to do with a movie starring a reggae artist? Well, for a short time I was a member of a ska band (yes, really). And this always reminds me of the story I heard about how reggae was born (its attribution and/or veracity, I haven’t a clue about, but it was told to me by a good friend, not that that makes it Holy Scripture). The story goes, first there was ska, and it started during the hottest time of the year, and people drank and had a good time. The next year, it was a little bit hotter, so they slowed ska down a little, and they drank a little more, and rocksteady was born. The year after that, it was hotter still, so they slowed rocksteady down, and they drank a little more, and reggae was born. And while not everyone is familiar with ska or rocksteady, practically everyone is familiar with reggae (I’m pretty sure that the Bob Marley album Legend is handed out at most college orientations).
Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) returns to town from the country after his grandmother dies. He is quickly taken advantage of, but makes his way home to his mother (Lucia White). Being unskilled and unable to find work and discovering that the people with money don’t feel like handing it out, Ivan goes to the local Preacher (Basil Keane) for some type of job. Elsa (Janet Bartley), the Preacher’s ward, takes a shine to Ivan, but the Preacher is angered, and she and Ivan are quickly out on their own. Ivan records the titular song for producer Hilton (Bob Charlton), but finds out that people in the recording business are dishonest (shocking). Ivan throws in with pals Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman) and Jose (Carl Bradshaw) dealing ganja, and things go downhill from there.
Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come is a story about a dreamer. Ivan wants more than anything to be famous, and he doesn’t really care how he attains that fame. He starts at the bottom, and he does try hard to gain honest employ. However, circumstances being what they are and living in an impoverished area, he soon realizes that it’s not hard to keep a good man down. However, for what naïve charm Ivan displays at the start of the film, it’s soon shown that he is a truly unlikable character. He cares nothing for other people’s property or time or rules. More importantly though, the sadistic side of Ivan comes out in a brutal encounter with Longa (Elijah Chambers). This is not to say that Longa’s behavior is exemplary or even all that much above pond scum, but what Ivan does to him takes it a trifle far. We are repeatedly shown during this scene closeups of Ivan’s face, and he is positively beaming, taunting Longa. And once this monster is let out of the box, he does not go back in. Ivan rather quickly becomes a bloodthirsty, narcissistic egomaniac, and it makes it extremely tough to have any sort of sympathy for his plight. Instead, we feel for Elsa (when the film decides it’s time to remind us that she exists in Ivan’s life), but she is powerless to stop Ivan by herself. Of course, unlikable characters have populated and headlined stories since stories began, but they are either interesting to follow or have some aspect about them which gives us a hint of their humanity. Personally, I never got that feeling about Ivan as a character, and he’s not really portrayed as anything other than a street thug (even after he gains popularity and despite the raw deals he’s handed), to my mind. Consequently, the remainder of the film is just hoping, praying, and waiting that he will get picked off.
The film is definitely low budget, and it certainly shows in both the film stock and the shooting style. The film is edited together in a frenetic fashion that gives the viewer more a feel for this part of Jamaica than anything concrete for us to go on, and it accomplishes this very effectively. Henzell and company will even show a great many shots of the locations and activity around the characters rather than focusing on the characters themselves, because they are one. By that same token, there are also some marvelously composed shots and smooth camerawork which provides bits of beauty, even while reminding you that mere feet away squalor and refuse permeates these tableaux. Yet even with a style reminiscent of MTV but years ahead of it, the film’s pace is dauntingly slow (and not that a slow pace is a bad thing, but if the end result has the viewer [in this case, me] checking the clock every ten minutes, I don’t consider that a good thing), and I believe that part of the problem lies in this same, energy-infused style of editing. The viewer is barraged with images and actions so manically, they are almost impossible to decipher, forming a sort of fugue in the audience’s mind after they have passed, and then the film suddenly switches to a more traditional style of filmmaking for a section or two. At an hour and forty minutes, this constant start and stop quickly wears down the viewer’s tolerance, and the film becomes a slog rather than an experience (which, I suppose, still counts it as an experience). Added to that, for as much as I like Cliff’s music (and I do), hearing two of his songs repeated four or more times each throughout the film (like some jerk at a bar playing “Stairway To Heaven” five times in a row on the jukebox) does nothing to make the film feel any shorter (even if they both illustrate in song the film’s main themes).
I know it feels like I’m being unfair to this film, that I’m being overly harsh on it and completely eliding the positives. And there is much to like about the film. The destruction of dreams and turning them into insanity, the achievement of fame through infamy, the failure of authority’s representatives to live up to their own image and the realities in such a setting which also prevent them from doing so and make abusing power that much easier are all themes in the film amongst others. The music is great, when it’s not the same two songs being repeated. The ending of the film almost makes up for a lot of my gripes with it, but the chaotic seeming-non-structure hurt the film to a large degree rather than helped it, in my opinion.
MVT: Jimmy Cliff may not be the world’s greatest actor, but the man is highly talented, and he does have plenty of charisma by himself. That he’s playing an unrepentant, glory-seeking asshole is not really his fault, but he is totally convincing in the part.
Make Or Break: The Break for me came at the point in the film when Ivan goes home to get his revolver, and he is absolutely thrilled to learn that he is now famous for being a villain, and doesn’t care about anything but his own press. I get that it’s his fatal flaw, but all it honestly did was make me wish he were dead that much sooner.
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