Saturday 29 November 2008

The Harder They Come (1972)

Here's a cult film that I've seen mentioned all over the place but never had a chance to see until now, not courtesy of the Midnite Movie Mamacita at Chandler Cinemas as you might expect, given that this was one of the original midnight movies, but rather courtesy of TCM Underground. It makes me happy to see it but sad that there's no longer a Rob Zombie to introduce it because that would have been truly surreal, given that it's a Jamaican . There's much that's surreal anyway though, given that this is the original version of the film, not the one with subtitles. It's a Jamaican film with all its dialogue in English but the accents are so thick that it often sounds like a foreign language. It's difficult to keep track of what is really going on.

It follows Ivanhoe Martin, a young singer who comes from the country when his grandmother dies, hoping to make it as a singer. He finds it a little harder than he expects, even to get a chance to show anyone what he can do. Before he can do that he has to find work and a place to stay and they aren't forthcoming either. Eventually he finds a girl and gets a single recorded and he thinks he's arrived, but he hasn't counted on the recording industry keeping very much in charge of everything. He finds that the only way to get a hit is to sell the rights to the song, for far less than it's worth, so Ivanhoe ends up working for Pedro dealing ganja instead.

It's hard to describe the film beyond just calling it Jamaican because it doesn't easily fit into other categories. It's a musical film, for sure, drenched in the music of the Caribbean, but that's not the only thing it is. It looks at Jamaican life, pure and simple, showing us the rich and the poor, the devout and the heathen, the good and the bad. We get dreadlocks, streetside domino games and a whole host of berets. We get shanty towns, kids dealing newspapers to drivers by dodging traffic and of course plenty of ganja, given that Ivanhoe ends up in the gangster life. It was great to see people playing bar billiards. I miss that game.

The story doesn't seem entirely consistent, though given that I couldn't understand more than half the dialogue certainly couldn't have helped, and it meanders all over the place. Apparently the two versions have different endings, so I wonder how the subtitled one ended. However much it makes sense, or doesn't make sense, it's certainly an original film. It doesn't feel like anything else I've ever seen: not any other gangster film, music film, rags to riches story, exploitation picture, anything. For a film to remain somewhat unique after 35 years isn't commonplace, so it's hardly surprising it became a cult hit. It deserves that much.

However it's much more than that. It was the first film produced in Jamaica and the trigger by which reggae really hit the States. As much as I could understand what was going on, Jimmy Cliff does a fine job in the lead: beyond being a damn fine singer who sings at least three classics here (The Harder They Come, Many Rivers to Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want), he provides us with a memorable anti-hero. Midnight movies weren't just cult hits, they were cult hits that people went back to and back to and I can understand why here: the uniqueness, the flavour, the view into a completely different culture. I'd watch it again, but I'd like to see it with subtitles next time.

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