The Harder They Come, the film that thrust both Jamaican cinema and reggae music into the global spotlight, arrives today on Blu-ray for the first time. To celebrate the rerelease, Rolling Stone spoke to the film’s star, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, about shooting The Harder They Come, his future plans and his five all-time favorite reggae albums.
Nearly 50 years after the release of The Harder They Come, Cliff reflects on the film’s lasting impact, both as a document of early Seventies reggae and its “rude boy” story.
“[It] was such a landmark movie because it was very real. None of us were professional actors,” Cliff says. “And the story is the story of any one of us who was born in the country or coming from the country; as much as a movie like Scarface, who was coming from Cuba and then he came to the United States looking to make a fortune in the city, because we’re all told that it’s in the city that we can make it.
“And the character that I played was trying to be himself. Not wanting to go to this church with the preacher and religion, not wanting to be under the subjection of this producer who tried to hold him down, then he tried to go to the radio station,” he adds. “Everywhere there was a blockage, and he just wanted to be himself. You can find anyone of us, even in today’s world, that want to be like that.”
The just-released The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, out now via Shout Factory!, features the film in pristine quality thanks to a new 4K scan from the original 16mm negative, plus a new audio commentary from Cliff biographer David Katz. The 3-disc set also includes The Harder They Come director Perry Henzell’s little-seen follow-up feature No Place Like Home, documentaries, interviews, music videos, archival footage and more.
Getting in front of the camera was easy for the singer, who studied acting in school prior to embarking on a music career. “The way Perry [Henzell] got me to do the movie was – because I was doing so well in Europe at the time that I didn’t really want to come back [to Jamaica], I could make a lot of money in Europe, I had hits with ‘Wild World’ and ‘Vietnam’ and those songs – he said, ‘You know, I think you’re a better actor than singer.’ And I went wow to myself, because I thought the same thing to myself,” Cliff says.
Despite his love of acting and his well-received Harder They Come performance, Cliff had sporadic appearances on the big screen in the decades that followed, making cameos in the Robin Williams comedy Club Paradise and the Steven Seagal action film Marked for Death. “There were some other roles that came up but I didn’t really see myself playing them, so I said no to them,” Cliff says of his movie career.
Instead, Cliff is focused on writing and recording new music: In the years since Cliff released his acclaimed, Grammy-winning 2010 LP Rebirth, he has amassed three albums worth of music. “When I drop the next album, I really want it to have it to have a huge impact on the world,” Cliff says. “I don’t want to just put out another album out to say ‘Jimmy Cliff has a new album.'”
Cliff also plans on touring the U.S. in some capacity in 2020, maybe. “I think it’s a good time because you’re electing a new president, so that would be a good time for me to tour,” the reggae legend quips.
Cliff, one of a handful Jamaican artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a consummate fan of reggae music, also broke down his personal list of his five favorite reggae albums:
- The Maytals – Never Grow Old: “I came in before ‘Toots and the Maytals,'” he says of the then-trio’s 1964 debut LP recorded before they adopted their more popular moniker. “‘Toots’ came in after that, but [Frederick “Toots” Hibbert] had such a great impact on the ska scene, and that was the beginning of the [reggae] music,” Cliff says. “Never Grow Old, I loved that because it was the Maytals‘ time. [Cliff briefly sings the title track’s chorus]. I love that song, and I love the whole album.”
- Burning Spear – Marcus Garvey: “Burning Spear came in at an era where was the music was called ‘reggae’ and it started to develop into a more cultural, spiritual side.” (Toots and the Maytals are credited with coining ‘reggae’ in 1968 with their track “Do the Reggay.”) “And then Burning Spear came with that album about Marcus Garvey, which is one of the prominent figures of Rastafari and as well as a national hero,” Cliff says. “But besides being a national hero, for the movement of Rastafari, he’s a cornerstone.”
- The Congos – Heart of the Congos: “The Congos are also an expression of that [Rastafari] era,” Cliff says. The 1977 classic, stewed up with Lee “Scratch” Perry at the dub pioneer’s famed Black Ark, is considered a reggae masterpiece and one of Perry’s greatest showcases. A year after Heart of the Congos, “The Congos and I joined together to make the song ‘Bongo Man’ that I recorded with Sons of Negus, and the Congos were the ones singing on it with me,” Cliff adds.
- Bob Marley – Legend: “[Marley] was an artist that I took into the business and became maybe the most phenomenal figure [in reggae],” he says. Cliff is often credited with giving Marley his first break, auditioning the young singer in 1962 for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label. Rather than any specific Marley album, Cliff opts for the “best of” collection of the reggae superstar’s work. “That one was on the charts for a long, long time,” Cliff says.
- The Harder They Come soundtrack: For Cliff’s fifth pick, he casts modesty aside. “I have to choose the soundtrack. It has some great songs, including a few of mine,” Cliff quips. In addition to choice cuts by Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and the Melodians, the soundtrack boasts two of Cliff’s biggest hits, “Many Rivers to Cross” and “The Harder They Come,” both listed among Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; the soundtrack itself landed at Number 122 on the 500 Greatest Albums list. “They are kind of timeless songs. The whole album was a landmark album,” Cliff says.