Jamaica’s classic film ‘Harder’ after four decades

Jimmy Cliff.
AP Photo/Collin Reid, file

Four decades after the release of the film “The Harder They Come” hundreds packed into cinemas to see and hear the story of one of Jamaica’s real-life outlaw, musician and folk-hero. Many had seen the flick when it was first released in 1973.

Since that time, college students, reggae fans and film buffs have elevated its status to the sought-after status the Jimmy Cliff classic is and has been enjoying through the years.

Newly-digitized and reformatted, the film is now being screened throughout the country and was on the schedule for a Williamsburg, Brooklyn showcase recently. On that occasion, Justine, the daughter of director Perry Henzell stopped into the cinema to answer queries from curious fans who wanted insider information about the shooting of the now-classic, Jamaican feature.

Although the curator of her late father’s legacy relayed valuable details that probably quenched the appetites of many patrons, it was evident that the film answered many of the questions and provided reassurances some had pondered.

Based on a true story about an individual named Rhygin, after casting, scriptwriter and director Henzell integrated Cliff’s own life-story to reveal a character who leaves rural Jamaica for the capital where he pursues a career in the record industry in much the same manner Cliff did after leaving Somerton, St. James to live in Kingston.

Cliff’s biography converges with the criminal Rhygin’s when Ivanhoe shoots, knifes and kills for spree. He becomes a two-gun wielding bandit who boasts bad behavior and brandishes photographs of his rendezvous to the local newspapers in order to advance his popularity.

Allegedly, when the script was sent to Cliff in London, it was titled Rhygin. But after a screen test in London, director Henzell decided “Hard Road To Travel” might be a better moniker. Cliff liked the title and recorded a song by the same name.

“The changes went beyond the title,” Cliff said, “The movie changed a lot along the way, from the script, Rhygin, that I read. It changed because most of the part about music – Rhygin had nothing to do with music. He was just a rebel. Most of the things to do with music were taken from my life, because I came from the country (in September), came to Kingston, really an innocent boy come to Kingston, get rip off …”

As shooting progressed, Cliff claimed the role by identifying with the rebellious character and integrated his own experience as a country boy who was exploited by greedy record producers who paid him little for his work and controlled radio airplay by bribing broadcasters, police and the music industry movers and shakers.

Cliff’s reported demise of being robbed of his last pennies parallels Ivan’s city lessons in the capital on his first Christmas in Kingston.

There were also Cliff’s real-life struggles with producers, just as Ivanhoe faced in the movie.

According to Henzell, one of Rhygin’s popular sayings was “the harder they come…the harder they fall.” Ultimately half of Rhygin’s telling phrase decided the title now being celebrated.

The film is acclaimed as Jamaica’s first, feature; the first to popularize reggae music, the first to impact the consciousness of voters in Jamaica and the one that sealed Cliff’s future in the entertainment industry.

In fact, Cliff was already a celebrated singer/musician when he was approached by Henzell to take on the challenge of acting.

However, with his music the soundtrack to the film, he became a made-man and international recording artist who probably paved the way for Bob Marley’s success afterwards.

Allegedly on opening night in Kingston, Jamaica, the reggae-fueled hit provoked riots when thousands could not get into the sold-out Carib Theater venue.

One report was that: “The 1973 launch in New York led to six straight years of ganja-smoke filled midnight screenings around the United States and has gone on to become one of the best regarded independent films of all time.”

The film co-stars Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman and Basil Keane. Co-written by Trevor Rhone, the film is hailed internationally as a breakthrough in exposing some of the controversy that plagued the island after post-colonial rule and independent status.

And while corruption is at the heart of the storyline, Jamaica’s scenic and colorful façade provides the backdrop to an alluring tale. In conjunction with the re-release of “The Harder They Come,” the Grammy-winner will embark on a 17-date tour where he will perform in intimate theatre and club settings throughout the U.S. to promote his “2013 Many Rivers Crossed Tour.”

“I knew 40 years ago we had something special with the film. With the re-release of “The Harder They Come,” combined with my upcoming tour and recent Grammy win, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the past, present and future,” Cliff said.

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