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Review: THE HARDER THEY COME (1972)

by Meredith Grau
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Best Bad Quote:
“Don’t joke with your life, Longa. Give me my bicycle!”
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It is incumbent upon me to write this review, as apparently too few people have even heard of this film, a fact which interestingly is as “criminal” as Jimmy Cliff is in this movie. So, you see, it all “comes” together. Hard. No, The Harder They Come is not a porn, so don’t soil yourself, though the sexual potency of the title certainly serves a purpose. The film is a pretty raw and unabashed critique of the masturbatory and corrupted machine of… everything– the entertainment industry, the government, the economy, society stratification, etc.Those with power always hold down the little people, here represented by music master chef Cliff, who was hired to write the music for the film and stayed on to star as hero Ivan “Ivanhoe” Martin. The metaphors abound, as you can see. [If you scoff, I will slap your face clean off your face].
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The chase for the golden crown of success is truly the Devil’s game, here set upon one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. The film is credited with introducing Rastafari music and its culture to the states, paving the way for Bob Marley and the Wailers and their ensuing songs about the continual quest for peace in a land both consumed by consumerism and ruled by the hippos of hypocrisy. (Boom). Here, the hero is also the anti-hero, an accidental Robin Hood, who is coincidentally only out for himself, but whose twisted sense of morality was born of the oppressive and unforgiving times he’s living in. His rebellion against the “suits” that try to keep him away from the “pie in the sky” he seeks is initiated by the songs in his heart and fulfilled through his increasing acts of violence. When there is no justice in life, one has to make his own justice. As the Rastafarians view God as the White Devil who controls and pollutes mainstream thinking (concurred), here we have the unexpected warrior combatting such resultant human submission. “The Man” tries to keep ignorant those who would Rise Up against him. Ivan is all about freedom, and while he may seek his own liberation the wrong way, he still makes a lasting impression while doing it.
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As my enthusiasm has probably made clear, this movie is not “bad,” unless by ‘bad’ you mean Michael Jackson (before he touched children) ‘Bad.’ Or Breaking ‘Bad.’ Or “Drugs Are ‘Bad!'”Yeah, they are… So bad they’re good! (Sorry, I actually am smoking a lot of ganja right now. It makes me want to both get up and stand up for my rights). Anywhoodle, the plot follows prodigal son Ivan’s return to his native Jamaican village to live with his mother and make something of himself. There aren’t many options for the poor lad, so he gets a gig doing repairs for Preacher Man (one of many representatives of ‘the Man’ in the film). Ivan is nice enough, but he’s not allegiant to the notion that the most he can expect out of life is being some blow-hard’s little bitch who has to fight tooth and nail for a little cash. He has ambition, and he has the kind of buttery, archangelic voice that can take him and his optimistic tunes straight to the top! Unfortunately, when he records an album– in a scene that took only a single take, because Cliff is friggin’ BADassss (the extra s’s are for the sizzle effect of hot, soul-cookin’ jams)– the record producer ‘Man’ both overcharges him to release the track and then fails to promote it, which is all a tactical power play to keep the struggling dreamer down. 
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Supporting his new wife while waiting for his ship to come in, Ivan manages to get by the same way most of his chums do: by dealing the sweet, heavenly reefer. Of course, the Feds– more of the ‘Mans’– are shutting down these farmers and dealers, eliminating one of the few businesses in the area where an average guy can actually make a living. This is when things turn dark… Ivan’s self-obsession, delusion, and rage, turn him into a pistol-toting bandit in pimp gear, taking down any muthuh fuckuh that comes between him and It– whatever ‘it’ be. I mean, I could do a serious analysis of all the political themes buried within this power keg of cult cinema deliciousness, but the satisfaction need not be explained. The audience gets it. YOU will get it. Whatever subtextual, psychological wizardry is at play, the gist is in the riffs– Cliff’s lyrics in his own voice with his own, savvy style.
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It’s not blaxploitation. It’s a land that can’t even afford to be blaxploitative. It’s the other side of the coin, and therefore so much more unique and authentic. An independent film starring mostly local, untrained actors who improvised the majority of their dialogue, it was actually the first movie both produced and filmed in Jamaica. Except for Roger Corman, who distributed the film, no one could have imagined that a little indie flick about reggae, some underprivileged pot heads, and social deviants would send such a huge wave crashing down on American culture– but it did. And when it came, it came HARD! (Fan yourself. You felt it too). See this movie, or die a lesser mortal.
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Rating:
5 out of 5 Jimmy Cliff Ganja Ninjas! “Rastafari!”
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