Few movie soundtracks have changed the face of popular music more than the one for The Harder They Come, which single-handedly put reggae on the map, paving the way for Bob Marley's breakthrough album a year later. But while the distinct island sounds remain forever lodged in the public consciousness, it would be a shame to forget the corrosive and politically radical vehicle that brought them there. Like Burn! and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song before it, The Harder They Come is a crude, low-budget expression of revolutionary values, with an outlaw hero—the people's hero—taking on his oppressors with guns blazing. Billed as "Jamaica's very first feature-length film," it shouldered the heavy responsibility of introducing the country to the world, but writer-director Perry Henzell's approach is simple and organic, building a sense of national identity that keeps perfect time with the music. In an iconic turn, singer-songwriter Jimmy Cliff stars as a country naïf who arrives in Kingston with little money and no prospects, determined to be a famous musician. Once there, he faces with corruption at every turn, from a monopolistic producer who will only pay him $20 a song to a missionary church that peddles "The Word," to a police force bought off by the criminal element. Desperation tempts him to the ganja trade, and he finally achieves notoriety by shooting a few cops in self-defense and hiding in the Underground; meanwhile, his single climbs to the top of the charts. Layered with biting ironies, Henzell's story lands forceful blows to the capital-A Authority that poisons just about every social and religious institution in the city. Shooting in documentary style, his camera stays tuned to the shantytown squalor of the Kingston slums, where people are shown sifting through beachside garbage heaps, looking for scraps of food. Henzell talks about his obsession with capturing this reality on the DVD's commentary track, as well as the delight Jamaican audiences felt when they finally saw themselves on film. While it was ultimately the songs—"You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Many Rivers To Cross," "Pressure Drop," and the title track, among other classics—that carried the day, The Harder They Come remains a powerful testament to their meaning.
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