Monday, May 6, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #217 - The Harder They Come (1972, dir. Perry Henzell)

            When The Harder They Come first appeared in America in 1972 it had to have been met with bewilderment. While filled with an almost intoxicating first look at real life on the Island of Jamaica and blessed with one of the best soundtracks in the history of film, the movie presents its narrative and action in such a herky-jerky fashion, and the patois of the characters is so thick, that the typical westerner would be forgiven for requiring subtitles to even follow the plot. In fact, on its first runs through America the film was indeed shown with subtitles. I had not seen The Harder They Come in at least twenty years, and I freely admit that putting subtitles on made this my most rewarding watch of this extraordinary film. My memories of the movie were as cloudy as the ganja that filled the room the first time I saw it. There were strong memories of certain scenes, but my recall of the actual plot was dim. This time, from the first scene, I found The Harder They Come to be a fully absorbing and heartbreaking tale about the grinding effect of systems on human endeavor. Our hero, Ivanhoe Martin (based on a real character) is played with elemental realism by Jimmy Cliff who brings such burning intensity to his portrayal, that one can’t help but feel he is telling his own story at some level. When his grandmother dies, Ivanhoe, an aspiring singer, is forced to leave his country home and go to the city to stay with his mother. Finding nothing but poverty and disinterest in his music, he finds ways to get by-being a bike messenger, then entering the dangerous ganja trade. When he is told to deliver a package to a music studio he tries in earnest to sell his talent to the only producer on the island who can make his dreams come true. When his song only brings him 20 dollars, his disillusionment with the music business starts coming into focus.

            Through a series of events, all of which illustrate the corrupt nature of a system that takes advantage of poverty, ignorance and innocence, Ivanhoe becomes a notorious figure and does indeed find the fame he seeks. He finds a way out of the ghetto and straight to the top. It’s just not the way he wanted to get there. As the events of Ivan’s life ultimately lead him toward a violent conclusion, we are given an amazing look into the inner workings of the Jamaican music business (hint - it’s just as corrupt as it is here), and the marijuana business, and ultimately, the machinery that keeps poor people poor. The fundamental corruption of any system is explored (much as it was later on The Wire). We can feel that Ivan’s dreams will not come true the way he expected as the events of his life tumble inexorably toward chaos. The final acts of the film capture a fateful inevitability that is reminiscent of Bonnie And Clyde. This narrative is played out against the real stars of The Harder They Come: the exotic and exciting views of actual Jamaican life, which initially thrilled Jamaican audiences, and ultimately acted as the greatest calling card the island ever received, and of course the miraculous soundtrack which, along with Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Catch A Fire turned the rest of the world on to reggae music. Throughout the movie, the songs act as a narrative device, driving and describing the action playing out on screen. Reggae legends Toots and The Maytals are responsible for two of the best scenes. In one, their classic Pressure Drop provides the perfect driver for a breathless chase scene through a crowded ghetto. For me though, the most magical scene in the movie takes place as Ivanhoe gets his first look inside the recording studio during a Toots session for the song Sweet and Dandy. Cliff stares at the scene, wide-eyed and in wonder, and we share his thrill and desire to be part of the charismatic magic Toots is laying down. It is one of the most effective scenes about the making of music that I’ve seen. So few movies get the musician side of things right. Director Perry Henzel nails it with this scene.

            Bob Dylan wrote “You’ll find out when you reach the top / You’re on the bottom.” The Harder They Come brings this axiom to life vividly. Ivanhoe Martin dreams of leaving his country boy roots and becoming famous in the big city. He makes his dream come true, and it turns out to be a nightmare. His story is a cautionary tale as well as a lesson about the harsh realities of life for those whom the chips are stacked against. Although this message is depressing, the experience of watching The Harder They Come is ultimately uplifting, because the sounds and sights unfolding are so genuinely thrilling.
                     - Paul Epstein

No comments: