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Film / The Harder They Come

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The Harder They Come is a 1972 film directed by Perry Henzell. It was the first feature film ever produced in Jamaica. A massive hit in its home country, it also managed to become a Cult Classic in the rest of the world. In the United States it was marketed on the midnight movie circuit as something of an exotic Blaxploitation movie, featuring lots of Reggae music, a genre that was beginning to attract an audience outside of Jamaica. While technically an English-language film, subtitles were required to help audiences understand the local Jamaican patois. It was successful enough to be included in Danny Peary's first volume of Cult Movies in 1981.


Ivanhoe Martin moves from the Jamaican countryside to the capital city of Kingston. Jobless and poor, he joins the choir of a church run by a temperamental preacher, and begins a relationship with Elsa, a young woman for whom the preacher is a guardian. He first runs afoul of the law after slashing a man in a fight over a bicycle. Once he's back on the street, Ivan, an aspiring Reggae singer, convinces Mr. Hilton, a local music mogul, to let him record his song "The Harder They Come". He sees music as a way to break out of poverty, but Hilton offers him a ridiculously low fee. After learning that Hilton has all the music distributors and radio stations in his pocket, Ivan reluctantly accepts the money. Faced with more poverty, Ivan gets a job as a marijuana smuggler, but causes some noise when he realizes that he's only seeing a small fraction of the money generated by the drug trade. Unfortunately, he's not aware that the ganja dealers are in cahoots with the police. When Ivan's impulsive actions get him in trouble with both groups, he's forced to go on the run.

You can get it if you really want!

The film is notable for starring Jimmy Cliff in the lead role, who was the biggest reggae star before Bob Marley came along (Cliff actually helped Marley get his first record deal). Cliff wrote and performed most of the songs on the Cult Soundtrack, which all became hits in their own right: "You Can Get It If You Really Want", "The Harder They Come" and "Many Rivers To Cross". Other famous reggae songs in the film are "Rivers Of Babylon" by The Melodians, "Pressure Drop" by The Maytals and "007 (Shanty Town)" by Desmond Dekker. The hit songs made the soundtrack a genuine bestseller and many people in the West bought this Cult Soundtrack without ever having seen the film. Some might not even be aware that it is a companion to a movie! The album is considered to have popularized reggae in the rest of the world, laying the grounds for future acts, most notable Bob Marley. In 2003, UMG reissued the album, bundling it with a disc compiling other singles from the early days of reggae.

Side One

  1. "You Can Get It If You Really Want" - Jimmy Cliff (2:40)
  2. "Draw Your Brakes" - Scotty (2:57)
  3. "Rivers Of Babylon" - The Melodians (4:16)
  4. "Many Rivers To Cross" - Jimmy Cliff (3:02)
  5. "Sweet And Dandy" - The Maytals (3:01)
  6. "The Harder They Come" - Jimmy Cliff (3:41)

Side Two

  1. "Johnny Too Bad" - The Slickers (3:04)
  2. "007 (Shanty Town)" - Desmond Dekker (2:43)
  3. "Pressure Drop" - The Maytals (3:44)
  4. "Sitting In Limbo" - Jimmy Cliff (4:57)
  5. "You Can Get It If You Really Want (reprise)" - Jimmy Cliff (2:43)
  6. "The Harder They Come" (reprise) - Jimmy Cliff (3:07)

Many tropes to cross

  • As the Good Book Says...: "Rivers Of Babylon" by The Melodians is based on the Biblical Psalm 137: 1-4.
  • Blaxploitation: The movie was marketed in other parts of the world as a blaxploitation film, only because it features black people sticking it to The Man (though, in this case, The Man is black as well). But it did manage to reach the right crowd and became a mainstay in the midnight movie circuit.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: Ivan, a total unknown in the music industry, goes to a soundsystem to see how people react to his first single. While the record is playing, he casually asks a stranger what he thinks of the song. When the man says "Not bad," Ivan responds, "I think it's a hit."
  • Celebrity Cameo: Toots & the Maytals can be seen laying down voice tracks in the studio. They are also featured on the soundtrack. Ska musician Prince Buster cameos as a DJ, and Leslie Kong, who had helped launch Jimmy Cliff's career a decade earlier, portrays a recording engineer.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Hilton, Ivan's bent producer who uses payola to maintain his recording empire. He turns him down at first when he tries to haggle for a higher royalty, but then stiffs and tries to bury him before Ivan's crime spree causes him to re-release it.
  • Crapsack World: Crime, poverty, corruption, police brutality, a mirror of Jamaican society.
  • Cult Soundtrack: A huge international bestseller. It features four songs by Jimmy Cliff, two by the Maytals and one each by Scotty, The Melodians, The Slickers and Desmond Dekker.
  • Darker and Edgier: In Cult Movies, Danny Peary mentions that when it first hit America, it was often seen as a grittier, darker counterpart of Black Orpheus, since they're both films with all-black casts set in tropical locations about a poor, struggling, musically talented man, with iconic music scores that popularized their particular genres. They were often paired as a double feature.
  • Den of Iniquity: "007 (Shanty Town)"
    And the rude boys at the wheel
  • Dirty Cop: The Jamaican police are shown to be silent partners in the drug trade, basically running a Protection Racket by having the kingpins pay them in exchange for not getting arrested. A detective named Jones in particular is the point man for the cops in dealing with the with the ganja merchants, working out deals and threatening them if they step out of line.
  • Downer Ending: Ivanhoe is eventually murdered by the police, just when he was making it big as a musical star.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "The Harder They Come", "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and "Many Rivers To Cross" all sing about working hard and trying will make one succeed at last.
  • Film Within a Film: Ivan and his friend Jose are seen watching Django in a movie theater. Spaghetti Westerns were very much cult movies in their own right in Jamaica.
  • Foreshadowing: Ivanhoe compares himself to Django, which ends with the title character being ambushed by police.
  • Genre-Busting: It equally counts as a Crime Drama, a Blaxploitation movie, and The Musical. The scene where Ivan and his buddies see Django also underlines that you can view this film as sort of a Spaghetti Western set in modern-day Jamaica.
  • Just Like Robin Hood: Ivanhoe is an outlaw, but has a good heart.
  • Kensington Gore: The blood in this movie is obviously red paint.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Ivanhoe is obviously named after Ivanhoe.
  • No Ending: The film ends immediately after Ivan is shot dead by the police. Just a Smash Cut to the last credits sequence.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: invoked Hilton promptly forgot "The Harder They Come" after Ivan agreed to the $20, but when Ivan goes on his spree, Hilton rush-releases it to capitalize on the publicity.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Jimmy Cliff had been one of the first Reggae artists to break through outside of Jamaica, with "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK and a Top 30 hit in America, followed with another UK Top 10 in "Wild World" (which Cat Stevens produced, and was released before Stevens' own version was). His only acting experience had been in school plays.
  • Novelization: Released in 1980 and written by Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. It greatly expands the story, particularly when it comes to Ivan's life before he moved to Kingston.
  • Noble Fugitive/Outlaw: Ivanhoe is chased by the police and wanted for murder, but he was forced to go into crime in order to survive.
  • One-Man Song: "Johnny Too Bad".
  • Pep-Talk Song: "You Can Get It If You Really Want".
    You can get it if you really want
    You can get it if you really want
    But you must try, try, try and you'll see
    You'll succeed at last
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Ivan's "DON'T! (slash) MESS! (slash) WITH! (slash) ME! (slash)" when he uses his knife on the guy who stole his bike.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The story was based on a real life outlaw criminal in Jamaica. Apart from the that it was the first time that Jamaican youth could see their country on the big screen. It featured real Jamaican youngsters, speaking local dialect and going through raw troubles they were very real on their island, from poverty to corruption and violence.
  • Record Producer: The soundtrack was produced by Jimmy Cliff, Gully Bright, Derrick Harriott, Leslie Kong and Byron Lee.
  • Reggae: The soundtrack featured a lot of early reggae music.
  • Scenery Porn: The shots of Jamaica are really gorgeous to watch.
  • Shout-Out: The track "007 (Shanty Town)" references James Bond and Ocean's Eleven (the 1960s version).
  • Stoner Flick: Often treated that way, because it was... well... made in Jamaica. The ganja trade becomes a dominant theme in the second half of the film, with one scene set on a pot farm.
  • Streisand Effect: In-Universe, when Ivan, an unknown in the music industry, goes on the run from the police after shooting three officers, his song skyrockets in popularity. When the police tell his producer they're going to ban the song for glorifying criminality, the producer warns them that banning it will generate even more public interest.
  • Train Song and Train Stopping: "Draw Your Brakes" by Scotty, a cover of "Stop That Train" by The Spanishtonians.
  • Time Marches On: This film is a time capsule of what life in Jamaica was like in the early 1970s, from the poverty, the inner city crime to the popularity of radio d.j.'s.
  • Title Track: "The Harder They Come"
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: In the 1940s a notorious Jamaican criminal named Vincent "Ivanhoe" Martin, aka "Rhyging", managed to elude the police for several months and became somewhat of a Robin Hood character in Jamaica. He was eventually shot by the police. The film is essentially a Real-Person Fic placing Martin in Kingston in The '70s, as a Reggae singer.