The best film soundtrack ever? The Harder They Come

With less than a fortnight to go until we show The Harder They Come Upstairs at the Ritzy on Saturday 14th April I thought now would be a good time to throw the spotlight on perhaps the most fondly remembered aspect of that film, namely it’s soundtrack.

Following in the footsteps of earlier pop musicians turned movie actors such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles, at its heart The Harder They Come is a vehicle for the talents of Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. The film’s soundtrack is a reflection of this fact, with many of the film’s most memorable moments accompanied by one of Cliff’s songs, most notably the eponymous The Harder They Come. However, it is a testament to the vision of the film’s producers that Cliff’s stellar performances are placed within a broader musical context that powerfully evokes  the Jamaican Reggae music scene of the late 60s and early 70s.

To whet your appetite ahead of the screening of The Harder They Come on Saturday 14th April, here’s a breakdown of the key musical moments from the film.

You Can Get It If You Really Want

Getting the film off to a great start, You Can Get It If You Really Want perfectly captures the hopes and expectations of Jimmy Cliff’s character as he travels from the countryside to big city life in Kingston. Beneath the lush orchestrated pop-Reggae the lyrics (persecution you must bear) hint at the darker side of life which our hero may well encounter.

Scotty – Draw Your Brakes

Almost immediately, the film’s soundtrack presents us with the edgier side of city life, represented by Reggae DJ (the Jamaican term for a rapper or someone who sings/chants over a pre-recorded rhythm). In this case, Scotty is performing over the famous Rocksteady song, Stop That Train, by Keith and Tex. As with sampling beats in hip-hop, at their best  DJ versions enhance the original source material, injecting adding excitement and vitality. If this style of Reggae music appeals to you, be sure to check out Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Arkology compilation, which features a number of original Reggae classics along with their often equally great DJ or Dub ‘versions’.

Pressure Drop

Ten or so minutes in and Jimmy Cliff’s character, Ivan, is starting to connect, albeit tentatively, with the Rudeboy/gangster side of Kingston life. Reggae legends Toots and the Maytals mark the occasion with a snippet of Pressure Drop. Question is, when’s the pressure gonna drop on Ivan?

Many Rivers To Cross

Perhaps the most affecting point in whole of the film, we see Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) face a series of knockbacks as he looks for work amongst the harsh poverty of downtown Kingston. If  mournful church organ don’t get you, Cliff’s heartbreaking vocal delivery surely will. A standout moment which confirmed to me why Jimmy Cliff is such a timeless artist.

Johnny Too Bad

By this point of the film, Ivan has been taken in by a strict and controlling Pastor. Already, Ivan’s rudeboy tendencies are evident as he switches on this unbelievably infectious slice of golden age Reggae by The Slickers. There’s so much to like on this track, from the funky organ to the jumpy guitar, not to mention the close vocal harmony work. This is straight up Reggae at its best.

007 (Shanty Town)

We only hear a short burst of this classic song before it is abruptly turned off by an irate Preacher. Immediately, Reggae is established as rebel music and a threat to all authority, even (especially) missionary Christianity. Strictly speaking this song about Jamaican Rudeboys (street criminals) by Rocksteady is considered a a Rocksteady rather than Reggae number but when a song is this catchy who cares?

Sweet and Dandy

Ivan gets his first taste of the recording studio when he is sent there on an errand by Preacher. By sheer good fortune, no less an act than Toots and the Maytals happen to be recording that day.

The Harder They Come

After a period of significant personal upheaval, Ivan finally gets the chance to record a song in the studio. In the film it is a great glimpse into how classic songs were recorded, with the singer and band playing together live, often on what would today seem pretty rudimentary recording equipment. Jimmy Cliff gives a great performance and the band’s playing is super-locked in.

Rivers of Babylon

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of Svengali-produced disco-pop as the next man, woman or child but sadly the Boney M’s version of By The Rivers of Babylon doesn’t feature on The Harder They Come. Instead, you get the original version, performed by The Melodians. Incidentally, one of the two writers of this song, Brent Dowe, went on to record some great tracks with genius/madman producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, including the Rasta anthem, Down Here in Babylon. If you like what you hear, go check out Brent’s other work.

Sitting In Limbo

Nearing the end of the film, Ivan is in a reflective mood.  As a soundtrack, we have this mellow number sung by Jimmy Cliff, which to my ears at least comes over almost Simon and Garfunkel or Joni Mitchell-esque.  A welcome change of pace and musical texture.

Get The Full Picture

As great as these individual tracks are, they really have added impact when heard within the context of the film as a whole. All of which is a roud-about way for me to say you really ought to get yourself along to see The Harder They Come at the next Roots of Reggae, which is happening Upstairs at the Ritzy between 3 and 7 pm on Saturday 14th April. As well as showing the film we’ll be playing golden age Reggae and encouraging people to share their memories of the music and culture. I really hope you can make it!


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