Perry Henzell’s visceral 1972 Jamaican crime drama exists between the two moods of its two most famous tracks: the aspirational lesson of You Can Get It If You Really Want and the disillusioned downfall-premonition of the title song. The desperado here really wants it, really gets it, comes hard and falls hard. It’s a movie with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in its DNA, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Django, which in one scene is shown getting a rowdy screening at a Kingston cinema.
Singer Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a gawky country boy who comes to the Jamaican capital Kingston yearning to be a famous reggae star, having lived with his grandmother who has just died; he is virtually penniless after handing over to his mother the paltry amount remaining from his grandmother’s estate, having assured her that this surprisingly small sum is due to her having wanted a “big funeral”. Swaggeringly laidback Ivan gets a job in a repair shop on land owned by the local church and soon takes a shine to Elsa (Janet Bartley), the demure young orphan parishioner being kept, or rather groomed, as a virginal “ward” by a hectoring, controlling preacher (Basil Keane) who is creepily planning to marry her.
Ivan and Elsa start their secret affair as Ivan begins his twin careers in music and crime, only to be strangled in both by monopolistic capitalism. He records a catchy single, The Harder They Come, for local recording studio boss Hilton (Bob Charlton), who forces him to accept a flat buyout fee of $20 and blocks him from selling his single directly to radio stations and clubs. When pop stardom fails to materialise, Ivan gets into the ganja distribution business in a small way, retailing pre-rolled spliffs, only to find that the colossally lucrative US export action is sewn up by top mobster Jose (Carl Bradshaw) who collects protection money on behalf of crooked cop Jones (Winston Stona).
Ivan is humiliated and traumatised by corporal punishment handed down by the courts for a first offence, eight strokes of the tamarind switch – a horribly explicit scene. He then goes on a violent cop-killing rampage to promote his single, which duly becomes a massive hit and he sends photos of himself in cowboy-gunslinger poses to the papers. As the army closes in, Ivan has a new plan, to escape by boat to Cuba, where they will appreciate his radical outlaw vocation: “Revolutionary to Ras …”
The reggae soundtrack throbs and crunches and shudders in concert with the raw energy of Henzell’s storytelling and Cliff’s performance, but this doesn’t preclude a shrewdly self-aware debate about representation. At one point Hilton demands to know from Jones if they are banning Ivan’s single. His reply is: “Yes, if it glorifies crime.” Hilton responds: “Banning it from the hit parade? That’s when you make the guy into a big deal.” Of course, it is in Hilton’s interests for Ivan to be a big deal, although unlike the American papers who published what Bonnie and Clyde sent them, the Jamaican press is far more obedient.
When pious Christian Elsa tells her big-talking boyfriend that he is a “dreamer”, Ivan snaps back: “Who’s a bigger dreamer than you? Always talking about milk and honey in the sky. Well, no milk and honey in the sky! No, not for you, not for me. It’s right down here, and I want mine now, tonight!” Ivan may not be an existential hero, but he knows he is going to die in the very near future, and this conviction accelerates his celebrity and his fanatical devotion to the swiftly dwindling present moment of defiant self-awareness: he daubs graffiti all over town proclaiming that he is there. His fall is indeed hard (though no harder than those of his police officer victims whose deaths are heartlessly all but ignored). Like the cowboys he watches on screen, Ivan has a blood-in-the-sand reckoning with fate.
• The Harder They Come is released on 5 August in cinemas.