Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
If director Perry Henzell (who died in 2006, co-author Trevor Rhone dying in 2009) had not - perhaps unwittingly - appealed to Jimmy Cliff's long-held acting ambitions, The Harder They Come would have been a very different film.
Released in Jamaica in 1972, The Harder They Come is a landmark in Jamaica's projection of images of itself on to the big screen. A series of theatre screenings across the United States (US) this week marks the 40th anniversary of the movie's premiere in that country. Slated to start last night in Hollywood, California, The Harder They Come will go nationwide tomorrow.
Cliff will also be on his 'Many Rivers Crossed' tour in the US this month.
There will also be celebratory showings of The Harder They Come in the United Kingdom and Canada. The website www.thehardertheycome.com has the full schedule.
Cliff, who holds Jamaica's Order of Merit and an honorary title from the University of the West Indies which accords him the right to be called Dr James Chambers, told The Gleaner he was riding high in the UK when he got the offer and did not want to break the momentum.
"I was at Dynamic Sounds and I just finished a session, where I did You Can Get It If You Really Want and Let Your Yeah Be and a few other songs. And when I came out of the studio I saw this gentleman, bearded white Jamaican, come up to me and say 'you think you can write some music for a movie that I am making?' I look at him good and I say 'what you mean if I think I can write music? I can do anything!'. Like for half a minute him nuh seh anything, to the way me answer him. And him just say 'all right, all right, all right'. And that was it. The next thing I know, like two months after that, a script come now, saying 'I want you to act in it'," Cliff related.
The Gleaner suggests that the confidence of Cliff's response was the 'Rhygin confidence' and swagger (The Harder They Come centres around Ivanhoe 'Rhygin' Martin) and, with a merry laugh, Cliff says "exactly".
Henzell came to London, where Cliff was living, to do a screen test. It was the scene where Martin is coming from the rural area into Kingston, carrying mangoes. He finds his mother, who asks him where grandma is and Martin says she is dead. His mother asks where the money is and Cliff replies that grandma wanted a big funeral. "Him run that scene there with me," Cliff said. "Then him say 'boy, you are the man I been looking for to do my movie for all these years!"
However, Cliff had his reservations. "The truth is, I had so many things going on for me at that time in England, 'cause I was a big recording star," he said. "It was at the point that in England they call 'go and clean up'. That mean when you have a hit, it is time for you to go and make some money. Go and clean up!" Cliff said.
Describing himself as being 'on top of the world' at the time, Cliff said "Wild World (his cover of the Cat Stevens song) was a big hit. Wonderful World before that. Then I just had a new song coming up in the charts," he said. Also in the mix was Vietnam. There were earning possibilities in pounds sterling in England, deutschmarks in Germany and francs in France, Cliff reminding The Gleaner there was no euro at the time.
"So mi a seh to miself 'me can go make some money now and to go take six month off an' guh Jamaica guh make movie, by the time me come back the fame might down a little. Cyaan ask for the same money again'," Cliff said.
However, as Cliff deliberated, Henzell said just the right thing. Cliff's tone changes from merriment to reflection as he recalls: "Him say one sentence to me, that really make me make the decision. Him say 'I think you are a better actor than singer'. When him say that to me, is like a lightbulb go off in my head, 'ping!'."
And, quietly, he said "I always wanted to be an actor. That was my first love." The Gleaner asks Cliff if that meant he was not insulted by Henzell's assessment. "No. Because I always thought I was a better actor than singer," Cliff said. "So I said 'wow'. That is what helped to make up my mind, to say I am going to Jamaica to make this movie."
Henzell proved to be as adroit a director off the set as on. "When him seh that to me I say to myself 'look like this man here a read me'. Because it was what I always wanted to do - acting," Cliff said.
For more on Cliff and The Harder They Come, including his emotional response on recording the title track in the movie and treading in deep water as he waited on a ship, see Sunday's Gleaner.