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How the Movies Introduced Reggae to the World


If pressed to name their favourite Jamaican film, many people may mistakenly offer Cool Runnings as an answer, and while, yes, Cool Runnings is delightful, it is strictly speaking not Jamaican. With an American director and writers, at least one Canadian star and a German composer, the most convincing case for a nationality for that film is probably the House of Mouse: Disneyland. But, who could fault them for making that guess? Jamaica's number 1 cultural export is and has been its music for as long as they've held any kind of spotlight.

The Harder They Come was the first, and arguably remains the best, Jamaican film ever made. That metric meaning it was directed by, written by, starring, and produced by a crew comprised of Jamaicans.

The plot of the film was based partially on the escapades of real life cult figure Vincent “Ivanhoe” Rhyging Martin, who went on a minor killing spree. The film updates Ivan's rise-and-fall into contemporary Jamaica by introducing the underworld of drugs and record-making, which were capturing the minds of the Jamaican public.

Ivan comes to the big city, Kingston, believing he can dig himself out of poverty by becoming a star and cutting a record deal. He becomes entangled with a local preacher's adoptive daughter, and has a run-in with the law, but does manage to cobble together a potential hit. His producer buries the track to avoid Ivan becoming too unwieldly, leaving him to push drugs to escape ruin. When a cop tries to stop him on a run, things don't go well, and Ivan makes good on his promise of becoming famous.

The film came right out of the gate with a strong sense of working class national identity, how folk-heroes are idolised and come to define themselves by idolizing their own conceptions of legend (for Ivan, seeing Westerns like Django fuel his desire for a glorious struggle against his oppressors, seeing how the films capture the imaginations of the people). When he is left unable to make good on his musical decrees of resistance, he wills a seemingly unobtainable fame and cult following into existence by embodying the spirit of his only hit through crime.

The production operated on a shoe-string budget, opting to shoot many scenes in slums and streets, among the unfiltered hustle and bustle. This was a plus to distributors, because the movie captures Jamaica at the time with what would have been a very attractive exoticism to American audiences, not in the least because of the major presence of Jamaican patois, the native language. Patois is referred to as a ‘creole-language', comprised of mostly English, but it combines influences and vocabulary from West Africa, which confounded some international viewers and critics, never mind the often heretofore unheard accents. Upon its release in 1972 at the Venice film festival, the film played with subtitles, making it the first film ostensibly in English requiring English subtitles.

The plot thread where Ivan cuts a record deal identifies part of why there were no Reggae stars yet who had crossed over to become international stars. When making records, artists would typically not enter into negotiations to become a long-term fixture of a label's releases. This deterred labels from forking over cash to promote or properly market their artists, since the musicians may just have jumped ship once they hit it big. So essentially no reggae musicians received significant pushes from their labels, therefore even if their songs became slightly popular, few if any listeners bothered to learn who had made the music.

This problem was solved by creating The Harder They Come as a starring vehicle for ska, rocksteady and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The soundtrack to the film features a number of artists and singles spanning from 1967 to 1972, but Cliff dominates, performing half of the 12 tracks, with two of his best songs serving almost as leitmotifs reappearing continuously throughout the runtime. Specifically, although there isn't a weak moment on it, the title song by Cliff is a real highlight from the album and perfectly captures the attitude and identity of the film's main character. This served as a brilliant introduction to the genre, being comprised largely of hits by seminal reggae singers. The music amplifies the film as few soundtracks do, without it the movie would simply not work as well as it does, at all.

Whilst the story of the film divided critics, the soundtrack transcended criticism entirely. It became a massive hit on the international market as well as on home soil. Reggae escaped the label of curio and became a world-renowned and beloved genre. For its immeasurable impact on popular culture, and more than likely for the faultlessness of its tracks, the soundtrack for The Harder They Come is widely considered a classic, and was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The movie and album were followed by a number of Jamaican movies involving reggae, further cementing the nation's cultural identity as seen by American audiences, but the Jamaican film industry is still largely underground. What really took off was reggae, allowing artists featured in the film and many more not involved with The Harder They Come to flourish in a market that now welcomed their work. In this space of blooming success, reggae evolved and perfected itself, and we are all better off for it.