The Jamaican film The Harder They Come (1972) brought reggae to the world music scene and made singer-songwriter Jimmy Cliff, as its outlaw hero Ivan, an international star. Due to its groundbreaking use of unfamiliar native patois for dialogue it was slow to start in the U.S. but found its audience as a midnight movie, in the revolutionary vein of Melvin Van Peebles’ prior indie sensation Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Cliff’s searing title track, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Sitting Here in Limbo” and his beautiful “Many Rivers to Cross” are among the songs that make up a legendary soundtrack.
In 2006 Perry Henzell, the film’s director, producer, and cowriter, presented a stage version in London, which had a brief afterlife overseas. Perhaps it was closer to its lo-fi, ragged, and incendiary source than the new musical adaptation playing Off Broadway at the Public Theater, which is a slicker, more conscientious affair. (Or maybe not; apparently it had a “ganja break” intermission.) That’s not altogether a knock on this sober-minded take; it has its rewards, notably a star turn by Natey Jones as Ivan. But playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the book and new reggae-inflected songs for the production, doesn’t believe in “outlaw heroes”; her best-known play, the recently revived Pulitzer winner Topdog/Underdog, tears down such masculine constructs. The show knocks Ivan off the pedestal his legend ultimately creates for him, with mixed results dramatically.
The Harder They Come was loosely based on the real-life exploits of a Jamaican hoodlum, a Scarface type who climbed a ladder of success positioned among several corpses. In the show, Ivan, an aspiring musician from the sticks stuck in the nexus of police, ganja trade, and music biz exploitation, more or less accidentally shoots one cop (a number of them go down in the film)–his iconic motorcycle, a symbol of gangland success spotlit in stills with Cliff, is nowhere on view. He sticks with his ramshackle bike throughout as the show laboriously explicates his behavior, whether he’s pulling the wool over the eyes of his God-fearing mother Daisy (Jeannette Bayardelle) and girlfriend Elsa (Meecah) while enmeshed in the drug trade or going to extremes to get his songs played on the radio. No antihero this Ivan is the good guy, laid low by a cynical preacher (J. Bernard Calloway) who lusts after Elsa and rallies the cops to his side and an oily record producer (Ken Robinson) who steals “The Harder They Come” from him for $20. Parks’ larger point, as the wronged Ivan acquires the patina of heroism among Kingston’s poor and working class, is that everyone is bent and broken by the vicious cycle of corruption. But the presentation is uncertain, with too much speechifying in the long first act and not enough payoff in the second. Cutting down Ivan to human size loses the sharper, shocking edges of the character and reduces the material to another rote attack on the system.
The music fares better. Codirectors Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, with an invaluable assist from choreographer Edgar Godineaux, keep a large cast moving on Clint Ramos and Diggle’s colorfully Jamaican set and two turntables. Jones may be restrained by the book but he’s unleashed in song, and makes for a compelling Cliff surrogate; kudos as well to Bayardelle and Meecah, who take on “Many Rivers to Cross” with a gospel fervor. Cliff’s cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” is used to humorous effect at the top of Act II, where it’s plunked down in a ganja farm. It’s a little late for levity, however, as Ivan’s sanitized saga winds down. A softer The Harder They Come isn’t a bad thing. But when it’s over, it’s over.