The Harder They Come: A Treasured Piece of Cinematic History

By Ruth Chisholm

103 minutes of authenticity and artistry, The Harder They Come, directed by Perry Henzell and co-written by Trevor Rhone was released in 1972. It is the first full length feature film shot in Jamaica. The Harder They Come portrayed Jamaican life at the time in a real way. This was not palatable for some who had grown accustomed to only beach and seaside backdrops of Jamaica on screen.

The scenes, the people, the dialect and energy were in true form. The country boy turned city rude boy who chased a dream was played by the renowned Jimmy Cliff, who brought charm, confidence and a bevy of lyrics that gave rise to some of the top selling reggae songs of all time. It was as beautiful as it was gritty and challenged the status quo. But it bore a global concept of someone having a dream of success and who was ready to do anything to achieve it.

The Harder They Come tells the story of Ivan Martin who travels to Kingston following his grandmother’s death. He arrives with big dreams and stars in his eyes and is rearing to become famous. Elsa, Ivan’s love interest, calls him a dreamer. But he is focused and his antics even lead him to practice his songs in the church hall after hours.

Despite being poor, Ivan has the demeanour of a star. Nothing would sway his confidence. Even the prowess of the top record producer in town is no match for Ivan’s zeal. But the self-acclaimed musician who is ready to make musical hits, quickly realizes the obstacles ahead. Unable to find work, city life hit hard and Ivan turns to crime.

He becomes an outlaw walking the tightrope of the ganja trade and shooting his way out from the long arm of the law. He eventually gets his wish and makes a song that tops the charts, while adversely becoming one of the most wanted men in Kingston.

Unique, Groundbreaking and Fearless: The Path to ‘The Pie in the Sky’

Considering its popularity and supported by a best-selling soundtrack, some persons may not be aware of the film’s humble beginnings.

Financing was the hardest part. There were several occasions where production had to stop. The crew and cast all did their parts to ensure the film got made even on limited resources. Actors even accepted promissory notes for their work. Studio space was provided at cost and actors juggled props to make each shot count. Perry’s friends and colleagues all seemed to believe in his vision. His motivation and conviction were enough to keep it all on course. Perry Henzell believed in it and so the film had to be made.

Justine Henzell, daughter, independent producer and a director of International Films Management shed some light on the creation of The Harder They Come.

“Perry had made several commercials and so was very experienced in production in general. But he sought Rhone out for his writing skills after seeing his theatre productions. The part of Ivan wasn’t actually written for Cliff,” she added. “Ivan’s character became a singer once Jimmy Cliff was cast. Perry saw an album [cover] where Jimmy looked serious on one side and charming on the other side and that is what made him curious.”

It was also the “pie in the sky” line from the title song that led Perry to hold fast to the final title. It seemed to capture the essence and heart of the story.

The cast was not comprised of professional actors yet the performances were memorable and thrilling, particularly that of the self-assured record producer played by Bob Charlton. According to Justine, Perry selected persons based on “their energy, charisma and a certain star quality.”

Showtime

“In Jamaica it literally caused a riot when it was released at Carib theatre. It was a huge success,” said Justine. Cast and crew members stated that nearly 40,000 people surrounded the then 1500-seat theatre. It was chaos, and even a plethora of VIPs struggled to get in, but to them it was exciting to see the support that the film had generated.

The Harder They Come was no overnight sensation when it hit the London theatre scene. In fact the theatre in Brixton was empty on the opening night. Perry handed out flyers himself and led his team through a myriad of radio interviews. To generate buzz around the film. The second night the theatre was about half full. A few nights later the film drew the attention of a London theatre critic. Then the word of the Jamaican hit spread among Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans alike.

Distribution was another hurdle that Perry hit head on. He visited 43 countries and personally drove distribution opportunities for the film. It took six years for the return on the film’s investments to come to fruition.

The film went on to win the Cork and Venice Film Festivals in Ireland and Italy respectively. According to Justine Henzell there are plans for a sequel and a stage musical in the United States.

A Magical Place in History

Other than being Jamaica’s first feature of its kind, the film is indomitably special and has carved out its own place in Jamaica’s history. The Harder They Come had comedy, drama and action. There was something special there for everyone. Jamaicans saw and heard people who looked and sounded like they did. For those who had never touched Jamaican shores it was undoubtedly a fascinating take on island life.

The music is a character on its own. The best-selling soundtrack was as authentic as the look and feel delivered by the film. In addition to Jimmy Cliff’s hits Many Rivers to Cross, Sitting in Limbo and the title track, the soundtrack featured The Melodians, Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals and other reggae icons. Audiences were enthralled by the film’s scenes showing singers actually in the recording studio. Now over 40 years later these same musicians continue to pack concert halls. The film’s cultural offerings have been compared to Black Orpheus, the film creation that brought the favelas (slums) and bossa nova of Brazil to the big screen.

The Harder They Come has also been compared to The Wild One, and other iconic North American feature films about rebellion and the romance between the audience and the outlaw.

More for Jamaica’s Film Industry

The Harder They Come and subsequent films have blazed a trail for Jamaican filmmakers, whether for full length features or otherwise. The industry has come a long way. But Henzell feels there is so much more to be done. “We have come a long way in terms of technology and the affordability of making films but we are not producing as much content as we should for a country so rich in storytelling. We need more screenwriters and we need a defined distribution channel once the films are made.”

Henzell continued, “The focus should really be on diversifying the stories and investing in and developing wide distribution networks overseas.” In observance of Jamaica’s 50th year of Independence, Justine Henzell released the documentary One People: The Celebration. The documentary highlights the achievements of Jamaicans all over the world. From economists to scientists and artists, the documentary captures the essence of contributions made by Jamaicans in the Diaspora and beyond.

“As a Jamaican filmmaker I didn’t want our 50th year to pass without making a contribution. The response has been fantastic in terms of those who have seen it but we are waiting on music licenses to be able to sell it commercially. Once we have the rights to produce DVDs and sell the product we will tap into the diaspora market initially as they have been very eager to get copies.”

Henzell affirmed that the profits from the sales will go towards establishing a documentary film fund for Jamaica.

Credit: The content in the documentary Hard Road to Travel directed by Chris Browne also provided background information for the development of this article.