Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Barkley, Carl Bradshaw
Written by: Perry Henzell, Trevor D. Rhone
Directed by: Perry Henzell
MPAA Rating: R
Language: Jamaican Creole/English/Patwa/Patois with optional English subtitles
Running Time: 104
Date: 01/01/1972

The Harder They Come (1973)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Many Rivers to Cross

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Harder They Come is famous for its brilliant soundtrack (the first hit reggae record in America), for being the "first" Jamaican film, and for being a popular midnight movie, along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But what's amazing is how well the movie, newly released on a Criterion Collection DVD, still holds up.

Reggae star Jimmy Cliff stars in the movie as a naive country-boy who comes to the big city and immediately gets ripped off. He begins working for a local preacher and falls in love with the preacher's unofficially adopted daughter (who will, at some point it is assumed, become his wife). But Cliff has aspirations of stardom and records a hit record, "The Harder They Come," but is only paid $20 for it. He falls in with group of ganja pushers and, before long, goes on a killing spree and dies just as his record really takes off.

The Harder They Come is directed by Perry Henzell, who, if he made any other movies, is not known for them. Henzell gives the movie a ragged energy, with snappy cutting and nimble camerawork. It could have been a typical rags-to-riches-to-rags story, but the urgency of the storytelling made it more. It feels like it could have been filmed yesterday.

The real reason to see The Harder They Come in the first place, even if the film is surprisingly good, is the music. We hear Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and his heartbreaking "Many Rivers to Cross," as well as "Pressure Drop" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want" several times each. This was a sharp idea, as who doesn't like to immediately re-play their favorite songs over and over?

The Criterion DVD presents the movie in a nice new transfer, from the original camera negative. But since the movie was never a precision project, you won't be blown away by the quality. The sound is also well done, but isn't quite as crisp as the sound on Criterion's other recent rock musical, Gimme Shelter. The film is in English, but the Jamaican accents are very thick and I only understood about 50% of the dialogue. The film has optional subtitles, but they're "hearing impaired" subtitles that also include song lyrics and sound effects. It would have been nice to also have a "regular subtitle" option.

In addition, the DVD contains commentary by Henzell and Cliff, who are inexplicably recorded separately. Part of the fun of commentary is hearing former co-workers bantering and remembering (see Stanley Donen & Peter Stone's "Charade" for a good example). Separately, the commentary quickly becomes dull. For music lovers, the disc contains complete information on all bands involved, and an interview with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.

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