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The Criterion Collection presents
The Harder They Come (1973)

"Didn't I tell you I was going to be famous one day?"
- Ivan Martin (Jimmy Cliff)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: November 08, 2000

Stars: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley, Carl Bradshaw
Other Stars: Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bobby Charlton, Winston Stona
Director: Perry Henzell

Manufacturer: CMCA
MPAA Rating: R for (Violence, nudity)
Run Time: 01h:42m:52s
Release Date: October 31, 2000
UPC: 715515010825
Genre: gangster

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-A- B

DVD Review

There are few films that can be said to have had a true global impact for a country and bring it to world attention. There are fewer still that also help define a nation and its culture. With the 1972 release of Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come, the country of Jamaica found a voice on a global scale. It not only led to the awareness of reggae music that would soon explode on the worldwide music scene, but it also gave the Jamaican people, who until ten years earlier were under British rule, a film about themselves, with real Jamaican characters in starring roles, not sidelined as servants or accessory parts. As this Criterion DVD indicates, the soundtrack for this was the first wave in the global reggae awareness, featuring performances by lead actor Jimmy Cliff, Toots and The Maytals and Desmond Decker. With the subsequent release of Bob Marley's debut album, reggae would be part of the music vocabulary forever.

The film doesn't romanticize the Jamaican lifestyle; it portrays it with a brutal honestly, showing the poverty, corruption and culture shared by this people—this certainly wasn't produced by the Ministry for Tourism. Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan Martin, a poor country boy who comes to the big city to deliver the news of his grandmother's death, and to make it big with dreams of becoming a music star. Ripped off as soon as he gets to town, the reality of the situation is that he is flat broke, unemployed, and has nothing but his dreams to sustain him. After hopelessly searching for work, he finally makes his way into a church mission, where he meets and falls for a young girl named Elsa (Janet Barkley) in the care of a man known only as Preacher (Basil Keane), whose intentions for the girl may not be solely paternal.

Ivan's dreams of becoming a star are fueled even further when he meets Hilton (Bobby Charlton), the only game in town in the music business, who agrees to let Ivan audition for him. After a fallout with the Preacher and an ensuing knife fight with a co-worker, Ivan is arrested and severely beaten in the hands of the authorities. Cast out of the mission, Ivan cuts his first single at Hilton's studio, but when he refuses Hilton's offer to buy the song—for $20—Ivan sets out to promote it himself, only to learn that the music business is under Hilton's tight control, and no one can break a song without him. Desperate for money and fame Ivan concedes and the song is released, though without a lot of fanfare.

Realizing that his fortune is not coming as easily as he had expected, and under pressure from Elsa to improve their dismal living conditions, Ivan is drawn into the service of José (Carl Bradshaw), the local drug boss. José also plays informant to police detective Ray Jones (Winston Stona), who receives kick backs to turn a blind eye on the marijuana trade that supports the community. After discovering the discrepancy between what the drugs he is running are fetching in the US, and the meager sum he receives as a runner, Ivan shares his plans of cutting himself in on the action with José. The drug boss views Ivan's enterprising nature as a threat to his position and informs on him to cool him off. However, Ivan's memories of the punishment he received earlier make him fear the police, and he ends up killing three of them while eluding custody, finally making himself notorious as a gangster and a fugitive. His newsworthiness inspires Hilton to resurrect Ivan's recordings as he becomes a folk hero. With his newly acquired fame, Ivan seeks to gain even more notoriety, writing to the newspapers and posing for provocative photos, but his acceptance in the society becomes threatened when the police close in and shut down the drug trade. The pressure drops, and Ivan must find out who his friends are in order to escape. The price of fame may not lead to the glory he had envisioned, but instead to a fight for his life.

Having never seen the film before, I was quite impressed with the way this low budget effort came off. Henzell's style is to capture the reality of events, and use the camera merely as a device for that purpose, without a lot of staging. Cliff was not a professional actor, but had been a star in the Jamaican music industry for the ten years prior to shooting the film, yet he adds a gritty reality to the performance. The shooting style is rough and real, but the story is complex and the characters, most of whom aren't professional actors, are all well portrayed. As a gangster film, it succeeds admirably, with many brutally violent sequences. The intoxicating reggae soundtrack is infectious, and the film features actual studio performances by Cliff as well as Toots and the Maytals. I was also surprised to see a clip from one of my most recently discovered and now favorite westerns, Django, which plays a pivotal role in the film.

Overall a unique and rewarding experience, The Harder They Come is also noteworthy as being the first real portrayal of a Rastafarian on screen, in the form of Ras Daniel Hartman who plays Ivan's friend Pedro. While I don't know if I could recommend this as a "must buy" for everyone, I would certainly highly recommend that people see it for its look at Jamaican society. I did find that, despite this being an English language film, the heavy Jamaican accents and dialogue style necessitated use of the optional subtitle track in more than one scene.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The nonanamorphic 1.66:1 image is remarkably clean for a film of this nature and vintage. While not pristine, it contains very few print defects. Color has that early '70s look, but is well saturated. Black level is solid, and the fine grain of the print is well preserved.

My only complaint with this disc is that because it is nonanamorphic, widescreen owners will be forced to either watch it windowboxed or cropped to full screen, which cuts off the optional subtitles, which I found necessary to understand some of the dialogue.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The film soundtrack was mastered off the original optical tracks, and is presented in single channel mono. For the most part, it is well rendered, with minimal hiss and only very mild distortion is some of the more raucous church choir sequences. Any defects in the audio are source related. I did find that dialogue was sometimes undefined, and required the use of the subtitle track, especially in exchanges between Ivan and José, whose accents are quite thick, and whose dialogue is unusual for a northern boy such as myself.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 0 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Perry Henzell and musician/actor Jimmy Cliff
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:05m:24s

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with Island Records president Chris Blackwell
  2. Color bars
Extras Review: Once again, Criterion impresses with their choice of supplemental material, which while not overwhelming on this release, are very well suited to it. First, we get a commentary track by director Perry Henzell and singer/songwriter/actor Jimmy Cliff. Edited from solo commentaries, both Henzell and Cliff cover a lot of ground about the film, from the music to the political climate in Jamaica, and the drug business that underscores the film. The social commentary is extremely informative, and supports the importance the film played in Jamaican history. There is some technical information covered, but the majority is on a more personal level about the influences for the film, and the influence it had.

Next, we have a recent 10-minute interview with Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, the company responsible for distributing the film's soundtrack. Blackwell gives an interesting account of the rise in popularity of reggae music, which he attributes primarily to the soundtrack for The Harder They Come. A very suitable addition, which also includes an extensive biography on Blackwell as well.

We also get a section with biographical information and discographies of the musical artists featured in the film. While the discographies are noted as "select", they are very extensive nonetheless.

Criterion's standard color bars round out the on disc supplements, and the trifold booklet also features more background on the film and its influence.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Since this film was released when I was very young, and the subject matter had never really drawn my attention, I wasn't expecting to enjoy the film as much as I did. Loosly based on a real life character, The Harder They Come is a gripping film and has been extremely influential musically. Criterion has once again supplemented the feature with worthy additions that really enhance the enjoyment and appreciation of the film. While not for everyone, I would still give this a healthy recommendation, and any musician, regardless of their individual style, should especially make an effort to see this fine disc. I would warn you though that the soundtrack may haunt you for days afterwards....


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