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The Harder They Come

One of the best movie-soundtrack albums ever produced is from 1973's The Harder They Come. Featuring some great songs in a sort of reggae sampler, it includes standout work by Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, and Toots and the Mayall. This was the album that broke these artists out of Jamaica, paving the way for the more popular Bob Marley. With the passage of time, nothing has dampened how great a soundtrack it is, and is a good example that reggae can be more than just a Marley box set. As for the film The Harder They Come, it's a loose and jangly effort, made on the cheap — a retelling of the legend of the famous Jamaican criminal Ivan as a Reggae musical. Playing Ivan is Jimmy Cliff, who gives a star-making performance as the rural lad who comes to the city to be a star but is slow to learn the big-city ways. After trying to find work — and staying with a preacher, only to be kicked out for knifing someone and romancing the preacher's kept woman — Ivan finally records a song, only to earn $20 for his efforts. So, to make ends meet, he starts selling ganja, on the rise and courting danger by never following the practices of the drug trade — and refusing to pay for protection. Shooting a couple of cops leads to a rise on the top-ten charts, at both radio and police stations. The Harder They Come offers a story familiar to anyone who's seen a gangster movie, and in general the film is a sort of Jamaican Scarface. But its rough edges and semi-documentary approach give it a fresh groove, as do the performances, which are done mostly by non-actors. It was the first film to emerge from Jamaica that actually was made by Jamaicans, and perhaps because of that it has plenty of refreshing enthusiasm, with colorful photography and an infectious beat. Unfortunately, since this effort Cliff has only appeared in two other movies, and one of those was a Steven Segal film. Criterion's DVD release of The Harder They Come builds upon their previous Laserdisc edition, which was film-only, albeit widescreen and subtitled. Here the widescreen transfer (1.66:1) has been freshly remastered. But despite the improvements, there are some quality issues, with shifting background colors and water marks. Audio remains in the original mono, but it doesn't suffer from the fact, and the soundtrack is clear and well presented. Also on board is a new commentary track by director Perry Henzell and star Cliff, as well as an interview with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and a discography of the performers in the film. Subtitles are optional, but as people are speaking English in heavy Jamaican accents, many viewers are bound to find this a useful feature.

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