I was almost ashamed to say that it has taken me this long to see The Harder They Come. That was, of course, until I saw it.
Everyone who likes Reggae has undoubtedly heard of The Harder They Come. Most have probably never heard of its most comparable film, Rockers. The Harder They Come, released in 1972, was the first film of its kind to come out of Jamaica. Rockers was released in 1978, and while it does have some comparable elements to The Hard They Come, it is quite different.
Both films center around musicians trying to make it into the Jamaican music scene. Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a poor country farmer who comes to the big city after a weak harvest and wants to become, what else, a recording star. Horsemouth, played by Horace Andy, lives in the city and is an aspiring entrepreneur and drummer who wants to move into record distribution.
Unlike Ivan, Horsemouth is a man of the people, who wheels and deals to get enough money to buy a motor cycle so that he can distribute the freshest sounds around Jamaica, while intermittently playing drumming gigs. Ivan really comes across as more of a sociopath who wants a quick route to success and thinks that one song is going to propel him to limitless riches and fame.
Both stories have a plot element that revolves around two-wheeled transportation. And it is because of these vehicles that the stories begin to take on different dimensions. Horsemouth has his motorcycle stolen by a bunch of thugs controlled by a local business man – who he indirectly works for. You have genuine sympathy for Horsemouth, as he has had to borrow the money to buy the motorcycle to get his business going. You want him to succeed – he has been wronged. Here is where the main difference between these films rears its head.
Ivan has a bicycle, well, one he refurbished that was lying around the house of a preacher who had taken him in and given him work. He fixes it up, gets it all natty looking, and decides that it is now his. He also decides that the girl who the preacher has taken in is also fair game. The preacher does not come off as a particularity trustworthy man and may have plans for the girl himself. Regardless, Ivan seduces her and gets her to go against the preacher. The preacher has had enough of him and casts him, and eventually the girl, off his property (ooh, how biblical). This is where we first encounter the morally ambiguities of Ivan.
Ivan comes across like a Jamaican version of Little Alex From A Clockwork Orange, minus the charm. When he is not allowed to take the bike with him, after being told leave the preachers compound, he horribly lacerates another worker who tries to stop him. He is caught and punished with a severe canning that he fully deserved. Actually, I think he got off lightly. Now I guess we are supposed to feel sorry for him as the world is a harsh and unfair place. I have better uses for my box of Kleenex, thank you.
Eventually Ivan gets his song out, but is unsurprisingly ripped off by the man who does record it for him. Wait, a corrupt music executive – this is unheard of! Ivan is incapable of playing the game at all and bitches about the money a little too much. This causes the record producer to punish Ivan by limiting the playing of his record so that he, the record producer, can recoup his money and leave Ivan out in the cold. Even though it is unfair, Ivan seems to expect everything to be given to him out a reverence everyone is supposed to have for him – all because he has one catchy tune (which gets overplayed in the movie and mysteriously appears twice on the soundtrack – just in case we haven’t already heard it enough…again…already). He eventually turns to drug dealing (no big surprise there considering he surrounds him self with, and seeks approval from, drug dealers) and immediately becomes jealous of the money the people he works for are making. So he decides to go against them and turns into a sort of Jamaican Scarface, though nowhere near as cool.
Now we are at the point in the film where he has metamorphosized, presumably, into a great anti-hero, and we are to respect him while he goes around shooting everyone in sight – mainly because he was punished for being an asshole earlier in the film. Visions of the beating he received for the dis-figuration he caused haunt him, so every cop is now an acceptable target, as is anyone else who gets in his way. It is hard to feel any sympathy for this character as the ass whipping he received was justifiable. Yet we are supposed to identify with his suffering, that the man done him wrong, and the revenge he extracts is justifiable.
As a result of his killing spree his song becomes a runaway hit and he is embraced by the people as a renegade hero. In fact, he is a self-centered, egotistical maniac. Yes, the influence of the church, corrupt police and modern-day colonial masters are the ones that must fall in Jamaican society for its people to have a chance, but it is difficult to read that into the film based on his actions alone. The church never conspired against him (it provided him with work when no one else would) and the police never bothered him – at least not that we are made privy to. The only person he should have a beef with is the record producer. I found myself looking at my watch after a while and was happy when Ivan was finally stopped, because it meant this overlong examination of psychopathic selfishness was done. Ivan is truly a one hit wonder.
The positives that I can give to this movie is its portrayal of life in Jamaica in the early 70s, which is quite fascinating. I think it would be quite enlightening to some who believe in the Disneyfication of Jamaica. It is not deadlocked wonderland full of Irie people who are glad to see you. The reality is it is a desperate place to live for most, which unfortunately hasn’t improved much since this movie appeared (thanks to the IMF and World Bank). At least that is conveyed by the director. If anyone is interested in the current state of Jamaica, I recommend the excellent documentary, Life and Debt
Now, back to Rockers. Horsemouth doesn’t devolve into a gun wielding psychopath after his dream is shattered. He has more to be upset about than Ivan, as he is a hard-working man who is respected in his community. It is so much easier to get behind Horsemouth’s struggle, even though he is a bit of philanderer. He has no problem borrowing his wife’s life savings to help in the purchase of his motorcycle and then thinks nothing of trying to hook up with the young daughter of the owner of the club where he is the house drummer. That is about his only foible and the unwanted attention it garners adds to his plight.
Horsemouth, though he is wronged more than once, bides his time and is able to enlist the help of his Rasta friends to set things right. There is a beautiful scene of his dreadlocked army of friends marching off to fight the down presser man, set to Peter Tosh’s menacing, Stepping Razor X. The scene is perhaps unintentional funny, but works. Horsemouth comes across like a modern day Robin Hood, assembling his merry men, dressed to the nines in their reggae finery. They, and Horsemouth, are able to take care of matters to everyone’s benefit, which makes Horsemouth a more realistic peoples’ hero.
Rockers looks great, the colours are fantastic and the cast is stellar. To be fair, The Harder They Come looks great, too. The music in Rockers is pumping during the film and the clothing many of the actors wear predict the arrival of hip hop culture in North America and around the world. There are some fantastic party scenes with music and dancing to match. It is hard to pick a winner between the two films when it comes to the soundtracks. One would probably have to lean towards The Harder They Come, yet I still find it odd, that on a six song album, you’d include the title track twice. Yeah, I know it is the title song, but still. The Rockers soundtrack is equally impressive and draws from a wider swath of musicians, but it lacked the impact of The Harder They Come. There is something to be said for being first.
Both films need subtitles. Even the biggest phony white Rasta isn’t going to be able to swim through this sea of barely intelligible, to non-Jamaicans, patois. The subtitles, though helpful, occasionally require a Rosetta stone to figure out, as just providing a phonetic representation doesn’t really clarify what has just been said on-screen. Overall though, it isn’t too hard to get the stories, as the movies are not meant to be riddled with metaphor and covert meaning. Mostly, they are just meant to be escapist fun, with some morality thrown in, in the case of Rockers.
I think Rockers is hands down the better film, but it has the unfortunate distinction of having to follow the film that paved the way for its existence and broke Reggae into a world-wide phenomenon. Both films have been remastered and are readily available. From a historical perspective, both are worth seeing. I doubt I will watch The Harder They Come Again, but I have watched Rockers three times and I know there is still another viewing in me. It is just a far more engaging film.