MOJO Time Machine: Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come Hits Cinemas

On 3 September, 1972 iconic reggae film debuted at Notting Hill’s Gaumont cinema


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

3 September, 1972

“Reggae Movie Opens” ran the NME headline to a news item that announced, “Jamaica’s first major movie, The Harder They Come, makes its debut at London’s Notting Hill Gaumont on September 3.”

The film, a crime drama with a killer soundtrack, was directed by Perry Henzell and starred Jimmy Cliff. Its global debut actually came a few months earlier with a screening in Kingston, Jamaica, at the Carib Theatre in July. That was a riotous occasion, boosted by the arrival of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and his fiancée Beverly Anderson, an actress who had a role in the film. It was reported that several thousand would-be moviegoers attempted to access the bullet-hole ridden cinema, muscling aside local bigwigs and forcing even the film’s stars onto the street outside.

There was also a brief stay at Brixton’s Classic, where it played to an empty theatre on its opening night. “I had to print up thousands of flyers and literally stand outside the underground station and hand them out,” Henzell recalled.

It had taken Henzell nearly three years to piece together his low-budget masterpiece, which, it was hoped, would enhance the international reputation of its star, Jimmy Cliff. Cast as ‘Ivan’ Martin, Cliff portrayed a young Jamaican who heads for Kingston to become a singer, only to become involved in music-biz rip-offs, marijuana trafficking and then increasingly violent battles with the police. Made on a shoestring budget, several cast members died during shooting and had to be replaced by lookalikes. Additionally, the film’s use of the local patois was deemed difficult to understand without subtitles. Even so, it proved a highly compelling
cinema experience.

Cliff, who had been born James Chambers in Jamaica in 1948, was an apt choice for the lead role. A former ska singer contracted to Island Records, he’d enjoyed a modicum of international fame in 1968 when he’d won the Brazilian Song Festival with a self-penned composition, Waterfall. He’d enjoyed considerable success with such songs as Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Vietnam and a version of Cat Stevens’ Wild World. He was also familiar with the criminal culture that prompted much of The Harder They Come’s screen action. The film was also based on the story of Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin, an outlaw who had died in a hail of bullets following a shoot-out with the police in 1948.

“I moved with the gangs so I understand the psychology of the runnings with them.” 

Jimmy Cliff

“I run around with gangs… I man was a youth ‘mongst them,” Cliff explained to NME journalist Penny Reel. “Anytime I come around them I always have some positive reasoning… I moved with the gangs so I understand the psychology of the runnings with them.”

The Notting Hill screening, boosted by the release of Island Records’ soundtrack album and full-page adverts in the music press, was intended as the film’s real introduction to the wider movie-going community, and the response was positive: Let It Rock magazine promised its readers that the film, “will engross you”. Yet it wasn’t successful enough to bring Cliff superstar status, and the singer soon opted to quit Chris Blackwell’s label and flee to EMI instead.

At that point, Blackwell stumped up the legendary £4,000 cheque to ensure Bob Marley And The Wailers signed to Island. Blackwell had envisaged promoting Cliff as a revolutionary reggae star, but later said, “when Bob walked in he really was that image, the real one that Jimmy had created in the movie.”

“You’ll never see that money again,” one doubter informed him.

“It was all about trust,” Blackwell insisted. Correctly, as it turned out.

As for The Harder They Come, in February 1973 it was picked up by Roger Corman’s New World company for distribution in the US, playing mainly to midnight audiences and steadily acquiring cult status. This was aided by its fabulous soundtrack, which included You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers To Cross and the powerful title track, all performed by Jimmy Cliff, plus songs from The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, The Melodians and others that would soon inspire punks and 2-Tone ska revivalists alike.

For his part, Henzell achieved international recognition but little in the way of financial stability with the film’s release. After working in theatre and as a novelist, Henzell did eventually complete another Jamaican feature, No Place Like Home, after relocating a print of the film misplaced for nearly 30 years. The movie – which contained a performance by a young Grace Jones – received its premiere at the three-day Flashpoint Film Festival in Negril, just days after Henzell’s death from cancer on November 30, 2006.

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