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The Harder They Come (Remastered) DVD

2007, it seems, is a year for celebrating landmarks in Jamaican music. First we’ve had the 30th anniversary re-issue of Bob Marley’s Exodus, and now, a re-mastered DVD of the film that first took reggae international and ushered in the Marley era – Perry Henzel’s The Harder They Come.

35 years after its first public screening, The Harder They Come remains the best loved of the classic reggae films - the motion picture and soundtrack are remembered so fondly that today they are almost indivisible in the popular imagination – and now you can reacquaint yourself with both thanks to this digitally polished DVD and CD package from Revolver Entertainment.

As much a gangster movie as a reggae film, The Harder They Come is an archetypal “rise-and-fall” in the mold of Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) (or Shakespeare if you really want to get technical) concerning Ivanhoe - a man who violates life’s perceived natural order to get “my share of what’s mine”. With only youth and exuberance on his side, Ivan’s dilemma is summed up perfectly by this line from old jazz pianist Mose Alison’s Young Man Blues:

Still from the movie

“Cos the old man, has got all the money. And a young man ain’t got nothing in the world these days”

The story is quite simple: Ivan comes to Kingston from the country, armed only with his wits and a mango – which is soon stolen. He then gets a job with a local preacher, with whom he clashes after falling in love with Elsa, the pastor’s young ward. Next he becomes a singer, but finds the music business too short on incentive, and finally, an outlaw heading toward the inevitable showdown with the ultimate authority – the army. Unsurprisingly, such a narrative still has a great deal of resonance with young people today - be they fans of mafia movies, or the gangsta hip hop and grime scenes – more so than the idiosyncratic, preachy Rasta films that followed.

The Harder They Come differs also from later reggae films in its truly shocking scenes of poverty. Today many in the UK have had the opportunity to witness the rubbish dumps, swarming flies, furiously beeping horns, and crowded streets of the so called Third World first hand. In 1972, the impact on western audiences (whose view of the Caribbean had been shaped by films like Dr No) and Jamaican viewers unused to their reality on celluloid was truly immense. Although diminished, these scenes remain disturbingly different from the roots reggae-boom Jamaica of just a few short years later captured in Theodore Bafaloukos’ Rockers (1978).

Whereas the central figures in Rasta films disdain the material conventional life; Ivan wants all that society has to offer. Radio commercials provide a soundtrack to some of the more atmospheric scenes, promising wealth and status that always seems beyond the grip of the populace. In both the cinema and church scenes, shots of the Western on screen and the preacher in the pulpit are interspersed with cuts of the faces of the audience and congregation, ravenous for something more than what’s on offer.

Still from the movie

There is much to be gained from a comparison with Rockers. Bikes are a central symbol of empowerment for the main character in both stories and the bicycle scene in The Harder They Come is another link to the romance of the Western in its homage to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969). Then there is the Christian presence in Jamaica which is portrayed in both films as alien and cultish. Yet where in Rockers the Church is found wanting for being untrue to its adherents African roots, in The Harder They Come it is equally cult-like, but not satisfying enough for the people, most pointedly in the scene where the congregations’ religious ecstasy contrasts with sexual ecstasy of Elsa’s fantasies about Ivan.

The role of women in The Harder They Come is one of several points of contrast. Depending on your viewpoint, the female characters are either more or less powerful than in the later Roots And Culture films. To some the women in Rockers are marginalized acquisitions at best, exploited breadwinners at worst, while in The Harder They Come women use their sexuality to gain power, in the same way as dancehall queens like Lady Saw do today. The converse view is that they are forced into debasing themselves by their circumstances, whereas as Roots Daughters they are exalted figures. Each position has some validity – but neither is ideal.

The other major area of difference is the positioning of the Rasta Man himself in Henzel’s film. Here he is marginal, a criminal, a ganja trader, in keeping with the mainstream view of Jamaican society at the time. Later, with the power of roots music behind him (although much has been made of the overly rasta-centric view of Jamaican society held by non resident writers) in the films at least - he is king.

For many viewers, of course, The Harder They Come is all about the music. At the time the reggae beat was speeding up after the languor of rocksteady and slowed down “rude boy” ska like Desmond Dekker’s 007, as illustrated in the film by the record producer rejecting a quintet of singers for singing a tune that’s ‘too slow’. Of course, the music would soon slow down again for early Marley era. There are also some other insightful touches regarding the music business: the man behind the desk is Chinese Jamaican, a nod to the likes of Leslie Kong and Justin Yap, while the “producer” need only express satisfaction with the tune and pocket the money. The rougher edged guitar driven audition version of the title song is arguably superior to the more polished official release, and it is a shame it was never issued on an audio format.

Still from the movie

Revolver have done a good job with the re-mastering, re-instating the original gloominess to the scenes and banishing the horrible “day-glo” colours of some previous released versions - although the fake blood still looks a lot like poster paint! Subtitles are present in keeping with the original release, but with Received Pronunciation no longer the order of the day in radio and television, they are fairly pointless.

Ultimately The Harder They Come is like the Easy Rider of reggae films; massively popular with audiences due to its romantic view of one man against the world but lacking in coherent values. In his battles against a crooked society Ivan is a sympathetic figure, yet his actions, as well as being violent, can also be interpreted as somewhat infantile. The system may be corrupt – from the record business to the police - but Ivan refuses to work his way up and try to affect change from within, an attitude which chimes perfectly with the instant gratification culture of today, and explains some of the films significance to a wide cross section of the population. The Rasta films which came after would move discussion of the clash between spiritual and material world along; to avoid the system beating you – to be your own person – you have to reject it all. Of course, this brings its own problems.

Reviewed by Angus Taylor