Many Rivers To Cross: Jimmy Cliff on a sequel to The Harder They Come
Reports of a remake of The Harder They Come reminded me of this interview from May 2007 in which Jimmy Cliff spoke about his plans for a sequel. Originally published in Clash.
The Harder They Come has exerted an enormous cultural influence since its release in 1972. Jamaica’s first feature film took the then nascent reggae scene to a global audience, giving the genre an international reputation as a vital, energising art form. The accompanying soundtrack is bursting with songs that have become staples of reggae with several Jimmy Cliff classics (including You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers To Cross and the title track) accompanied by the likes of Desmond Dekker’s Shanty Town and Pressure Drop by Toots & The Maytals. Its legacy has spread from being referenced in The Clash’s Guns of Brixton to being reinterpreted for the stage.
Jimmy Cliff was already a success in his own right before making The Harder They Come with top ten hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Cliff starred as Ivanhoe Martin, a singer who comes to Kingston to find fame and fortune but who is confronted with a city in which corruption rules. Cliff’s character was based upon Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin, a notorious and enigmatic outlaw of the late forties.
“What attracted me to Ivan in the first place was that he was an outlaw. And I’ve always been a bit of a rebel myself. When as a child growing up you heard about Rhygin, it was a name that shot terror in people’s minds,” explains Cliff, apparently still shocked to this day. “No-one had guns in those days, so for someone to have a gun and to shoot the police, that was really unheard of. I liked the idea of being a rebel.”
Rhygin’s status as an anti-hero was established by his love of self-publicity and his continued evasion of the authorities.
“He did have friends amongst the poorer class of people,” adds Cliff to expand upon Rhygin’s phenomenon. “What I heard as a child was that he used to wear a ring and every time he touched the ring he could disappear! And that’s why the police couldn’t catch him. The mysterious side of him also intrigued me.”
When writer/director Perry Henzell cast Cliff as Ivanhoe Martin, he took elements from Cliff’s background to create a character whose criminal activity was matched by a background in music. When the fictional Martin cuts his debut single, he finds that not only is he ripped off by a music industry monopolised by one producer, but also that same producer has control of the nation’s airwaves. It’s a situation steeped in reality.
“There were two giants [record labels] in Jamaica and a few smaller ones. I tried all of them. For my first recording, I was offered a shilling because I was still going to school at the time. I really dared to ask, what is this about? Am I not supposed to be paid for it? I was asked to leave the premises!” Cliff’s hearty chuckle suggests that he doesn’t hold a grudge. “My third recording I actually got something like five pounds and that was a good amount of money those days. But that was all; we didn’t have knowledge about royalties or anything like that. You get your five pounds and consider it to be a good pay day.”
The success of The Harder They Come could’ve been the central point from which the Jamaican film industry developed a continuing international reputation. But that scenario has never quite materialised with not a single work matching The Harder They Come despite a steady trickle of features.
“I know that there are quite a few people who tried to set-up the industry, but I always heard that it was a problem of money. But my personal view of the situation is that it’s not only a problem of money, but it’s also a problem of good scripts,” he empathises. “There were films that came out after like Smile Orange and a few others, but none had a script on a same level as The Harder They Come. Perry was a very bright man and he had a good awareness of the political situation in Jamaica. So if one writes a comedy about what’s going on in the north coast, which is what Smile Orange was about, it wouldn’t have the same international appeal. A few more movies came out, like Dancehall Queen, but they just didn’t have the broad, in-depth view that Perry had, so I think that’s what was lacking for the industry to develop and that continues through to today.”
Cliff declares that acting is his first love and even now considers himself to be a more accomplished actor than he is a singer. It’s hard to disagree that The Harder They Come represents a special moment in which both of his talents are utilised. That combination is set for a revival as it is planned that a sequel to The Harder They Come will commence shooting next year
“I’m still going to play Ivan. He almost died, he had an out of body experience after being shot by the police, came back to life, served a long sentence and is now back on the streets,” he explains with a tangible sense of excitement. “For him to have served over twenty years in prison and to come out to face the world again, it’s like when he first came to Kingston. I’m part of the writing team and we’re endeavouring to capture the time of what’s going on and the energy of today. All of these years, I’ve been touring all over the world and people are still saying, when are you going to make the next one? So there’s still a real demand for it.”
If Cliff and his collaborators can make a sequel that comes even close to matching the power of the original, we can expect something quite remarkable indeed.