The Harder They Come on DVD

Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Earl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman. Directed by Perry Henzell. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1. Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). 103 minutes. 1973. The Criterion Collection 83. R. $35.99.

The Harder They Come burst into the world in 1973 with a bang. Perry Henzell's explosive screenplay and the exotic Jamaican setting were the perfect foils for the charismatic Jimmy Cliff, who personified the film's hero, Ivan—the country boy cum music star/desperado.

A scant 12 years into its independence, the Jamaica that the film matter-of-factly portrayed was a place of soul-deadening poverty, implacable class consciousness, and casual corruption. It was also, unknown to most of the world, a hotbed of unique musical activity, and the alembic for a new, vigorous hybrid: reggae. The Harder They Come's soundtrack served as most people's introduction to this exciting new musical form, embracing everyone from the film's star, Jimmy Cliff, to the sandpaper-voiced Toots Hibbert and the sweetly biblical Melodians. (The Wailers also released Catch A Fire in 1973; that record and the film's soundtrack album together took the music around the world.)

The real pleasure, almost 30 years on, is discovering that Henzell's film is still exciting and moving, long after the new has worn off. Ivan, his Trenchtown Robin Hood, has grandiose dreams of being a reggae superstar but discovers that the game is rigged from the start. Forced to sell the rights to his hit single for $20, he sets off on a crime spree almost by accident, but finds that he relishes the role of dangerous man on the run and, for a while, stays one step ahead of the police, taunting them with graffiti reading "I WAS HERE BUT I DISAPPEARED." Of course, he goes out in a blaze of glory.

Criterion includes some interesting extras that complement its stunning video transfer and digitally remastered soundtrack. These include a 10-minute interview with Chris Blackwell, Island Records' founder, about his support of reggae through the years, and a new commentary track by Henzell and Cliff that expands on the film's political and folkloric roots. Also included is an "Illustrated Discography" describing the careers of the artists featured in the soundtrack.

The Harder They Come stands the test of time. Thanks to Criterion for giving it a release worthy of the ages.