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The Harder They Come (Criterion)

Old 11-05-00, 09:32 PM
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The Harder They Come is raw power. Filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, the film stars Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, a country-boy who comes to the city to make a better life for himself. Ivan wants desperately his life to matter for something; he wants to be somebody. This movie is about that journey---a journey to be somebody; to matter.


Ivan dreams of making records, but he soon finds himself a pawn in the ganja (marijuana) trade. Throughout the first half of the film, Ivan is subjected to control from various sources of elitist power: the record industry and its grip over radio, sales charts and dancehalls at the expense of the artists; the church and a preacher's stern grip over his congregation (especially attractive young women); the police and their complicity with criminals while fronting a supposed war against the same; and finally the drug traders themselves who exploit their own workforce via a pyramid of power whose top can never be seen. Within all of these societal institutions, Ivan teeters under the weight of his oppressors. Ultimately, Ivan responds: he becomes an outlaw hero with guns in his hands and stars in his eyes.


The movie infuses drama with music to great effect. Reggae, of course, fuels The Harder They Come. The image of Ivan in his gold-star shirt singing in the studio with a cigarette in his hand will forever be etched in my memory. The scene resonates with "real"; real music, real vibe...real damn good.


The DVD features a commentary by the director Perry Henzell and star Jimmy Cliff. Their tracks were recorded separately and offer up some fascinating details about not only the film, but life in Jamaica in general. They emphasize The Harder They Come's influence (along with Bob Marley) on Jamaica's being a cultural and artistic force. Henzell agonizes over his quest for realism. He winces at one point over the undesirable professionalism one actor exudes. The DVD also features an interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. He recounts his days in Kingston and offers his take on the importance of the film. The three weigh in with thoughts and insight that only make repeated viewings all the more rich.

The DVD is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1. The picture quality is very good but shows considerable grain. This grain, however, adds an element of grit which definitely works for this movie. The sound is mono and at times betrays the movies' indie-film roots.

One small quibble: The one subtitle track is for the deaf and hearing impaired. While the native language of Jamaica is English, the English spoken in the film is very difficult to understand to my American ears. Watching this movie without the subtitles on is not an option (at least on first viewing). However, the descriptive elements for the hearing-impaired subtitles (such as "FIRE CRACKLING" or "TIRES SCREECHING") are distracting for those simply seeking subtitled English.


For all my gushing, The Harder They Come is not a perfect movie. More could have been done to establish Ivan as a musician early on. (By the time the movie moves Ivan into the studio to record his song, his music is so fully realized and mature that I can't help but think that it is less Ivan in the studio than Jimmy Cliff himself). The second half of the movie takes on a wee-bit too much and the (thankfully short) chase scenes aren't very effective. However, I cannot stress enough my love of this movie. It is flawed, but perfectly so. The Harder They Come, along with the Leone/Eastwood "Man With No Name" trilogy masterwork, ranks at the very top of outlaw hero movies.



[This message has been edited by KingusKong (edited November 06, 2000).]
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Old 11-06-00, 04:39 PM
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Excellent first post kinguskong - good review. This film was one of my favorite memories of my college days and the dvd does nothing to diminish that. I haven't checked out the commentary track yet, but loved watching the film again. I do wish they could have done something with the mono soundtrack,though - the music is fantastic.
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Old 11-06-00, 06:05 PM
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Do you have the soundtrack for THE HARDER THEY COME? Essential listening, for sure.


One of my favorite shots from the movie is of the dump and the trash raiders (chapter 5) as "Many Rivers To Cross" is juxtaposed over the shot. The commentary for that scene is revealing---those folks aren't actors, they are real people and did not know that they were being captured on film.
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Old 11-06-00, 06:21 PM
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Good observations on this film. Criterion's treatment is exemplary and this is one the best dvds to come out in some time.

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Old 11-06-00, 09:53 PM
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quote:
Originally posted by KingusKong:
Watching this movie without the subtitles on is not an option (at least on first viewing).


I was able to switch back & forth with my subtitles on/off button. However, the subtitles are hilarious because they get the translation of the song lyrics wrong about half the time, or it says that someone is singing reggae & the lyrics are unintelligible and then when the singer sings the same words a minute later they're translating what they said was unitelligible one minute earlier.

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