Examining the legacy of the most important reggae movie ever made with the people who made it.
Written by Reshma B (@ReshmaB_RGAT)
If you can chat about something 40 years on, it's probably something worth chatting about.
The Harder They Come was the film that introduced the world to Jamaican culture, that gave reggae music global recognition and shed some light on the Rastafari movement.
Today, September 5th, marks the 40th anniversary of the official U.S. release of the Jamaican cult classic. As a celebration of the film’s legacy, Synocto Pictures is screening it in theatres across the U.S. in a fully restored and re-mastered version. For those who have only seen this indie masterpiece on DVD, today is a rare chance to see the music and culture of 1970s Jamaica on the big screen.
Complex got a chance to speak with the star of the movie Jimmy Cliff, a reggae legend who played the lead character, aspiring reggae singer-songwriter Ivan Martin, who turns to life as an outlaw after being swindled by an unscrupulous record producer. We also spoke with Justine Henzell, daughter of the director Perry Henzell, and the chief custodian of her late father’s legacy; Michael Ochs, the film’s original publicist; and reggae historian Roger Steffens, who will be hosting tonight’s screening at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Steffens still recalls (hazily) the first screening he ever attended at University of California, Berkeley: "When the chalice scene came on you couldn't even see the screen from all the smoke.” You may not be able to light up a fat spliff in the theatres today, but you sure can get up on the buzz.
Justine Henzell: [My father Perry Henzell] was born in Jamaica and studied in England at the BBC. After his father kicked him out for crashing his car, he gave him enough money for his fare to get on the boat to England and enough money to buy a pick and shovel when he got there. He had to go find a job. And he said the most important person in his career was when he went to the BBC studios and they were deciding whether you worked outside loading equipment into trucks or you were going to be on set inside. He got put inside on set and quickly rose up through the ranks and ended up as floor manager at the BBC.
When Jamaica became independent, he came back to work at our first TV station. He then opened up his own company and made literally hundreds of commercials. He always considered himself a story teller, and commercials were not the forum that would give him freedom of expression to tell story. Even though he did many innovative things and commercials in Jamaica—for example, he was the first person to use Jamaican dialect in a commercial—he was frustrated that he only had a 60-second format in which to work. So he always wanted to do features.
Jimmy Cliff: I was doing a recording session at Dynamic Sounds [in Kingston Jamaica] and during that session I recorded “You Can Get it If You Really Want” and “Let Your Yeah be Yeah” and a few other songs. After the session I met a Caucasian bearded gentleman who said to me, “I’m making a movie, do you think you could write the music for it?” I looked at him and I said, “Well what do you mean if I ‘think’? I can do anything.” He stopped for about 30 seconds and just looked at me. And he say, “OK, OK, OK.” That was all. And then next thing I knew in about two months, I went back to the UK, over at Island Records who I was recording for at the time, and there was a script there saying he wants me now to act in the movie—not just to write the music. And he came over to the UK and one of his people got in touch with me and I was happy. This was the man I have been looking for all these years to do my movie. And the rest of it was history.
Justine Henzell: Perry was captivated by the story of Rhygin, who was a real-life Jamaican outlaw and he existed in the public eye when Perry was a young child so he remembered hearing about Rhygin who was this bad guy but who everybody was rooting for as he was running from the police. So as a child Perry had this concept and later when he decided to make a feature film he drew on that for inspiration. But when he cast Jimmy Cliff in the role of Rhygin, which was Ivan, Ivan also became a singer.
Jimmy Cliff: The movie was called Rhygin. That’s the title that he got. And I knew who Rhygin was as a little boy going to school. He was a real person. And when one heard the name of Rhygin at that time, it was a name that struck terror into everyone because for someone to have a gun was like a really huge thing—let alone to shoot someone with it, and that someone is a police—was like, you know, a big, big, big thing. So when you heard the name “Rhygin” it struck terror in everyone. So I knew about that when I saw the title.
I did not reply that I wanted to act straightaway because, you know, I was kind of a big recording star, especially in the UK at the time. I just came out of the charts with a single called “Wild World” and was moving up the charts again with “Vietnam” and all of that. And so I had a lot of things going for me. I could go tour clear across Europe. So I had to decide, why should I go and make a movie now? That was my consideration. But Perry [Henzell] made one statement to me. He said, “I think you’re a better actor than singer.” And when he said that to me, he kind of made a light bulb light up in my head. Because really and truly what I loved in school was acting. That was what I used to do in school and so what I really wanted to do in life was to be an actor. So when he said that he really stopped me in my tracks there.
The First Movie Made in Jamaica
Justine Henzell: In terms of crew, Perry had a well-oiled machine because he was making so many commercials. He was set with that, but funding was a different matter. The film business was risky then as it is now and basically he had to rely on friends and family for funding. The reason why it took so long to make is because he would run out of money and he had to go beg everybody for more. So it was basically friends and family that invested in his vision. They used one camera. They used very limited props and limited makeup. But sometimes working within those limitations makes you more creative.
Jimmy Cliff: I grew up in West Kingston when I left the country. So even though I wasn’t really and out-and-out rude boy, I was around them. I was around a lot of, you know, hard-heart people. What is called Tivoli Gardens now in Jamaica it used to be called Back-O-Wall. And I lived right in front of that. Back-O-Wall was a place where everything kind of went on you know. There was Prince Emanuel you know, one of the Rastafarian elders. That was the spiritual part that went on in Back-O-Wall. And then there were a lot of people who were, you know, “bad men” in whatever way. That’s where you would find them. And I hang out with a lot of them. You know, “Come here singer, come sing a song for we.” [Laughs] You know, “Come here artist.” And you know, when they call you, you go. And they befriend you and that kind of thing. So you know, I hang out with a lot of them so I understood their attitude. I saw how they operated and all that kind of thing.
Justine Henzell: Well, he made a decision very early on in the process. He said that he had to decide if he wanted to make a film for Jamaica versus a Jamaican film for foreigners. And he made the decision that he was making the film for Jamaica. And I think because he made that decision he wasn’t trying to water it down or make it more accessible, that is what made it last. Because it is so authentic and it is a time capsule of a very, very vibrant era in Jamaica’s history.
He said that he had to decide if he wanted to make a film for Jamaica versus a Jamaican film for foreigners. And he made the decision that he was making the film for Jamaica. - Justine Henzell
Jimmy Cliff: For myself as an actor, the only thing I had to draw on was those experiences, plus the little experiences I had in school, plays that I used to do. And I always used to love cowboy movies. I remember they used to come to our school in the country and show movies, like mainly cowboy movies. Afterwards, my friends and I would take a piece of stick, and run into each other like we have guns. You know, playing cowboys and Indians. [Laughs] So it’s those little things.
Justine Henzell: [When Ivan goes to see a western during the film] that was a very authentic detail. That is a film that Ivan’s character would have gone to see. The films that would play in Jamaica in cinemas, and many of them were open air cinemas, were westerns or what we called “kickers,” martial arts films.
Jimmy Cliff: There were some parts that I didn’t know if I could manage. And I just, I went back to West Kingston and I talked to a few of the guys. Like the one scene where my girlfriend in the movie said “Ivan I heard you killed a man.” And I said “You think it’s one I drop? I dropped three.” To say it in that term, “I dropped three,” as if saying I shot three or I killed three and with the attitude and everything. It was a guy in the barber shop, one of the bad guys was hanging out at the barber shop that I used to hang out, that was like one of the scenes he told me how to do.
Justine Henzell: It comes back to authenticity. Perry believed in what he called star power, star quality. And he didn’t think you had to train as an actor to be able to have charisma on the screen. He was a director whose focus was on the actor’s performance. He let his cameraman deal with the lighting and setting up on the set. And he put all his energy into getting that performance. So it really didn’t matter if the person wasn’t an actor or not. Perry had an uncanny way of drawing the emotion that he needed out of the person for whichever scene it was.
Jimmy Cliff: There was also a lady on the set called, Ms. Jones. I forget her first name, but she gave me a lot of pointers. And then also one camera man, his name was Hughes. He also gave me a lot of pointers. So there was help from many different angles of people around, you know? But it was my enthusiasm, I really wanted to do this movie. I really wanted to fulfill my dream of being an actor.
Jimmy Cliff: Now, the original script that Perry brought to me in the UK was not what we have seen that became The Harder They Come now. Because the music parts, about Ivan’s life as a musician and all of that, never existed in [Rhygin’s] real life. So a lot of that was kind of my life, my experiences.
Justine Henzell: Trevor Rhone and Perry wrote the initial script. What actually ended up on screen was very, very different. Perry was all about authenticity and because none of the actors were so-called “actors,” including Jimmy Cliff—a lot of what happened developed on set. So Jimmy is perfectly right in that they would discuss everything and then it would happen the way it should. It wasn’t necessarily written down on paper. And in fact when we needed to get a script of the final film as it exists now we had to go back and watch the film and write the script.
Jimmy Cliff: Perry would have a scene written that we saw on the script, and then the day he came he would come with some different, different lines. He’d say, “Jimmy, how would you play that?” He didn’t say “I want you to do it like this.” And I thought that was really very intelligent. We had a collaboration on the script.
Justine Henzell: He would set up the scene, he would have conversations with actors what the scene was about and then the dialog and the action would unfold in that context. That is why when Jimmy says to you, I collaborated with Perry on the script, that’s what happened. They would have a conversation on set.
Jimmy Cliff: Musicians having trouble with producers was very common. I had a difficult time with most producers. Because we didn’t know what that life was like. After trying to be a producer myself, I experienced it. You know they are putting out their last pounds and pennies to produce some artists. So they’re taking a big chance. But we didn’t know that. All we knew is that we wanted to get our name out there and after that we want some money for it.
The scene where Ivan is recording as a singer, that was actually the first recording of that song. Perry just filmed it. And those were the moments that he was most excited about. Capturing actual life on camera, that’s what excited him.
The movie was first called Rhygin. And then secondly, it was called Hard Road to Travel. So we were shooting it for a period of time as Hard Road to Travel. Cause we started off shooting as Rhygin, then we changed the title to Hard Road to Travel. Now you see the movie is taking a turn to look like me because “Hard Road to Travel” was one of my songs.
Then one day Perry and I were sitting down rewriting a scene and he said to me, “You know what this guy’s saying? This guy’s saying ‘The harder they come the harder they fall.’ It’s what the guy’s saying.” And that’s like, boom! Light up a bulb in my head. The phrase sounded so good. I am one, I am one on titles and I pick up a lot on titles you know. So a lot of my songs I wrote, at first I get the idea of a title. And so that title kind of struck a chord in my head. So I just went and wrote a song like that. And I played it to Perry the next day and he said, “That’s good. That’s good, Jimmy. I like it.”
If you remember he shot that first scene in the church just like I was writing the song, the way I played it on my guitar. But the song was kind of half-finished. And so he shot the scene just like that, just to show the rawness and the reality of the whole thing. So that was like the only song written for the movie. When the movie was finished, we didn’t have a soundtrack. Cause along the way Perry was saying, “Jimmy we need a soundtrack.” The other song I wrote during the making of the movie was “Sitting in Limbo.” I wrote it in between takes. You know when you have to be sitting and waiting, waiting for the shot to set up, and all of that? We were just using one camera you know. So, most of the songs were chosen after the movie was completed.
Screening and Smoking
Roger Steffens: Perry told me that he went to 42 different countries over seven years for walling the film four-walling the film: getting the feel of the town, finding the best theatre, negotiating deals to rent it for a week, trying to find a way to repatriate the money that he would make in foreign currencies so he wasn’t losing money. This was a constant crusade on his part to expose Jamaican culture to all the people all over the globe. And he was very, very effective in doing that. It took him seven years to recoup.
The Jamaican audience was talking at the screen, they were shouting, they were laughing, they were completely a part of the film. - Justine Henzell
Justine Henzell: Ivan struggled to get his art heard and Perry struggled to get his film seen. Just like how you see Jimmy carrying his music trying to get people to listen to it, Perry literally carried the film around to trying to get people to see his film. The first night it showed at Carib [cinema in Kingston], which was a single screen at that point, there were huge, huge, huge crowds and they actually broke down the fence. My mother was carried overhead on the crowd around to the back where she finally got in. Many of the dignitaries could not get in and the crowd continued outside for days. It was the first time Jamaicans seen had seen themselves on the big screen so it was a big deal for us.
After that Perry had the shock of his life. The Jamaican audience was talking at the screen, they were shouting, they were laughing, they were completely a part of the film. And he left here and the first place it screened was at Cork Film Festival in Ireland. He was devastated because you could hear a pin drop in the cinema. He thought, “Oh my God, they hate it. I’m finished.” And he ended up winning the prize. They were just being respectful. But coming from the riotous Jamaican audience to the polite Irish one was quite a shock to him.
Michael Ochs: I used to be a publicist with Columbia records. And I quit in ’72 to become a writer. And then I saw The Harder They Come at a film festival and fell in love with it instantly. And I heard Mango had the soundtrack—Mango was owned by Denny Cordell and Chris Blackwell—so I called Denny I said, “Denny this is going to be a smash. This is what you gotta do.” He said, “You do it Michael.” And I said “No I don’t do publicity any more.” He says come on come on, you do it. So he hired me on to do the publicity for the soundtrack album. I was officially just doing the soundtrack album but to do that I pretty much did all the publicity possible.
Roger Steffens: One other thing you should be aware of is that it is the first English language film that had English subtitles [Laughs]. It was very hard to penetrate the patois for all us newbies at the time. And a friend of mine told me that he went to a theater where it was a doing a midnight showings recently and he took a date. About a third of the way through the film his date asked, “What language are they speaking?” Thatt was the version that did not have the subtitles to it.
Michael Ochs: The best way I can sum it up it was, it was a publicist’s dream and a salesman’s nightmare. The press loved it. Nobody turned me down once they saw the movie and heard the soundtrack… Every time I did a screening we got raves. Then the following Monday, the movie would be gone. The press loved it we just couldn’t get it to uh to stay in the theatres or really to get the record in the stores properly. The only theater it did well at in the first year was the Orson Welles theatre in Boston. It ended up playing there for like almost five years, on like a Saturday night special. That’s the only theatre it did really well in. But one of the like major problems, back then Roger Corman was distributing the films.
Roger Steffens: The power of the raw performances leaped off the screen at you. And because it was so brand new to everyone in America, we had seen nothing like that before. “My Boy Lollipop” was a hit and nobody ever ska. “The Israelites” was a hit and nobody ever referred to it as reggae—it was a novelty record. And even when Johnny Nash was doing his early reggae, they were never called reggae. They were pop tunes with a Caribbean beat. No one in America really knew that this huge movement was going on just 200 miles off our shores. So for many of us of a certain age, what happened was in July of 1973, Rolling Stone ran a major piece and it was called “The Wild Side of Paradise” by Michael Thomas, a gonzo journalist from Australia who said, “Reggae music crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire ameoba from the psychic rapids of upper Niger consciousness.”
I was in Berkeley at that time when I read it and I ran out of the house and found a used copy that day of [Bob Marley’s] Catch A Fire and the next day in a little tiny theatre on the north side of the campus that held about 40 people, I saw a sold out performance of The Harder They Come and when the chalice scene came on, the entire theatre lit up and you could barely see the screen through the smoke. And on the way home I bought the soundtrack to The Harder They Come and my life was changed permanently and unstoppably from that moment on. and that was repeated so often for other people. That one-two punch of hearing Marley and seeing The Harder They Come just instilled a tremendous desire on our parts to learn everything we possibly could about that music and all of what it leads to.
It certainly was the first inkling that there was a Rasta culture in Jamaica. So it was definitely important, not only in terms of introducing the music to the world but introducing this unique culture to the world and it was as responsible for spreading the message as Bob Marley was.
Jimmy Cliff: It’s a wonderfully timed film, besides being the first all-Jamaican film. I think it’s a universal theme. You know the rebel against the system. Cliff was fantastic. And it just had a live-ness to it that till this day is still not dated.
It was real. I think what actors do, they try to make it real. When they read somebody’s lines, they try to make it real. Either they bring their own experiences to the character, or whichever way they do it, they try to make that character that they are playing real. And so what Perry Henzell did, he said, “I don’t want professional actors because they are going to bring their methods that they were taught. I just want real people.” So a lot of the people in the movie were like… You know the bad man parts? They were bad men that he knew. So most of the scenes were real.
Plus, the music was fresh. You know, there were pockets of the UK that were familiar with the music because of the big West Indian population that was there. But the music was fresh to the world. “What is this music? Where is it coming from?” And to the whole world, it was a fresh music and exciting music. And so—BAM! It hit with a big impact.
Roger Steffens: This was the film that opened the doors of the world to reggae. It was unprecedented. In the same was as the Brazilian film Black Orpheus did in introducing bossa nova to the world ten years earlier.
Jimmy Cliff: Really and truly the film propelled the music to the highest level that it could have got. That’s what it did for reggae music and for myself. Now I was not just a singer/songwriter. I was an actor. In Europe I was known as a singer/songwriter, but in the rest of the world, especially the U.S., people saw me now as an actor—even though I had “Wonderful World and Beautiful People” that went into the charts in the U.S., it was really the movie that put me in people’s minds.
Justine Henzell: The combination of The Harder They Come and Bob Marley being on tour—and the albums that he released in the early ’70s—that was a real one-two punch in terms of getting Jamaican culture and music to the world. And the rest is history. Now it’s played in every boutique and every high street everywhere. And we’re still talking about it 40 years later. We have partnered with a company called Sinc in America who is doing a one-night-only anniversary theatrical re-release. I think it’s like 50 screens across the U.S. and the UK are going to be showing it on September 5th. They have done an incredible job and the response has been wonderful. People that have already seen the film on dvds, tv but the chance to see on the big screen is what is really exciting everyone.
Really and truly the film propelled reggae to the highest level that it could have got. - Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff: At that time, we started having disagreements—myself and [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell. I was with Island for a great number of years and I felt I wasn’t getting any attention. I told you about the session where I recorded “You Can Get it If You Really Want” and “Let Your Yeah be Yeah.” Those recordings were shelved. And I said what? So I called Desmond Dekker, and I went to Chalk Farm studios. And I said Desmond listen to this. And Desmond loved it and he sang it. And then I also called in the Pioneers and I said, “Listen to this.” And they listened to “Let Your Yeah be Yeah” and they sang that. And BOOM! Those two songs went into the top 5 in the UK, and they were big hits all over Europe. So I was bitter inside because I really feel like they weren’t giving me the attention I needed. But, on the other hand, Chris felt that he was waiting for the right vehicle to market me. Maybe my image wasn’t there yet. That’s the way he was seeing it and I was seeing it another way. With the movie he said, “Now I have the right vehicle to launch you.” So at that time I split. And since that disagreement we split. We parted company at that time. We later on kind of agreed. I said, you know, you were right. And he said, “Well, you were right too.” So till this day, we are really good, good friends. We have big respect for each other because he has done a lot for the music and so have I.
A lot of people, a lot of artists, emulate the character that I played. One such person who emulated it directly was Ninja Man. He has said: “Is the Jimmy Cliff scene in The Harder They Come, you know. That make me be who I am….” Now Ninja Man is probably not so big in America, but he had a great big impact in Jamaica for a long period of time. And his name is still quite big out here. But it’s not just him. A lot of the artists emulate Ivan. The character that I played was trying to be independent because he wasn’t getting any right justice from the producers. So he was doing his own thing. And most of the artists in Jamaica after that start doing their own thing. A lot emulated that character and did their own thing. You know, so things happened to some of them. Like, sadly, like Buju—who is a bredren who I really love. And quite a few other artists. So yes, it did have an impact to the point where they did [emulate Ivan], whether directly or indirectly.
Justine Henzell: There was a stage musical for which Perry actually wrote the book before he passed on. And that had a successful run at the Statford East. It left there and went to the Barbican Center in central London. And from there it went to the West End, and then it went on tour. So the stage musical was also very successful. We are also looking at a North American version of the stage musical.
There is a lot of interest in a remake or a sequel for the film, and so that is something that we are actively pursuing. And Jimmy will be a part of the process, regardless of what the project is. It would have to be someone who had the same kind of intensity as Jimmy Cliff in that recording studio scene, whoever that person would be.
RELATED: The 50 Best Blaxploitation Movies
RELATED: The 100 Best Movies Streaming on Netflix Right Now
RELATED: The 10 Best Jamaican Movies