Reggae Icon Jimmy Cliff on ‘The Harder They Come’ Off-Broadway Musical

In 1972, director-writer Perry Henzell released his Jamaican crime flick “The Harder They Come” with singer-songwriter Jimmy Cliff — then, a burgeoning reggae star — as its anti-hero lead actor. For his menacing cinematic debut, Cliff provided the lion’s share of the film’s riveting soundtrack, with lilting songs such as “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and the movie’s title tune.

Both the soundtrack and film (the latter released in the United States in 1973) became sensations. “The Harder They Come” brought island culture to the World beyond the Caribbean, and helped popularize reggae in the Americas. Along with his anthemic title song becoming an instant classic, Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” was subsequently covered by Linda Ronstadt, John Lennon and Annie Lennox, among other artists. Along with being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, the Library of Congress deemed Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” worthy of preservation in the National Recording Registry as of 2021.

Together with the recently-released expanded 50th anniversary version of the original Mango/Island album, now on UMe, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s pop star take on “The Harder They Come” and real life Jamaican criminal Ivanhoe Martin — Cliff’s character in the 1973 film — recently opened at New York City’s Public Theater. For this Off-Broadway stage incarnation, British actor-singer Natey Jones takes the lead.

In Park’s musical, Ivanhoe is a young Jamaican singer-songwriter looking to have his song heard without living under the thumb of the Jamaican music industry, or being unfairly hassled by preachers and police.

“Justine Henzell, the daughter of director Perry Henzell, had seen my play ‘TOPDOG/UNDERDOG’ back in 2002 when we were on Broadway for the first time,” says Parks, the new musical’s book writer. “Justine tells me that she knew immediately I’d be the perfect writer to adapt her father’s film. Of course, I already knew the music, and when I watched the film, my first thought was ‘Oh, my people are so beautiful.’”

Once formally invited to tackle “The Harder They Come” for the stage, Parks set about “deepening and strengthening the story lines and characters; crafting new scenes that emerged from the more robust character depictions; choosing and placing songs; creating dramatic contexts for the songs to make story-sense — all my work elevating the beauty and power and humanity and joy of the Jamaican characters.”

As for working with Jimmy Cliff’s catalog of songs, to which the author had full access, Parks calls “The Harder They Come” a “beautiful ride.”

For his part, Cliff — now 78, with a new album under his belt with 2022’s “Refugees” — is pleased to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his worldly classic with an Off-Broadway iteration.

“What initially comes to mind when you say ‘50 years’, is having Perry, the director, come and interview me with the script in his hand,” Cliff tells Variety from his home in Miami. “After we were finished that first meeting, he was satisfied that I was the right person to do his movie.”

When the filming of “The Harder They Come” commenced in Jamaica in 1970, Cliff had only just began releasing albums — six since his 1967 debut with “Hard Road to Travel” — and making inroads as a touring artist throughout Europe. At that point, acting was far from his mind.

“I was doing well in Europe, music-wise,” says Cliff. “I could have stayed touring and making a lot of money. But I accepted doing the movie which really wasn’t paying anything. Because I thought that I should act, as I did so in school. I always loved acting, becoming other people. So, when that opportunity came, I accepted. Perry told me that he actually thought I was a better actor than I was a singer. That was funny, but it struck a chord with me — I figured that I was, at the very least, as good of an actor as I was at making music. I just never actually said it out loud, however. I kept that to myself.”

Joan Marcus

For anyone who has seen the film version of “The Harder They Come,” it is no spoiler to reveal that Cliff’s Ivanhoe — and Natey Jones’ Ivanhoe in Park’s musical — is something of a hero to Jamaicans young and old, despite his having dealt marijuana and killed a policeman.

“Ivanhoe was a real-life character for Jamaicans,” recalls Cliff. “When I was a little boy, I used to hear about him as being a bad man. A real bad man. No one in Jamaica, at that time, had guns. But he had guns and shot a policeman, so he was someone to be feared. However, being a hero was the manner in which Perry wanted to make his name — an anti-hero in the way that Hollywood turns its bad guys into heroes.”

Considering that the majority of Cliff’s music up to that time spoke of peace and love, how did acting and singing as Ivanhoe on the song “The Harder They Come” suit him?

“Well, I may not be a bad man,” Cliff says, laughing. “But I have known a lot of bad men. When I got to Kingston, I was among those types of people a lot. When I was shooting the movie I even got a chance to speak to them, ask them if they would do what I was doing in the movie. So, you’re right I am a man of peace, but I knew plenty of people who were not.”

Talking about writing new songs for the 1972 film, as well as choosing songs from his then-brief catalog of albums, Cliff called the selection of tracks that made the soundtrack of “They Harder They Come” something of a happy accident.

“Perry wanted me to write all of the music at the beginning. But when the film was almost finished, we realized that no new music had been written except for the title song. We just never got around to it. Suddenly, Perry knew that we had to find the right songs. So, we went through my albums to find the most appropriate tunes and those of which I would approve.”

When it came to his instantly anthemic title tune, Cliff wanted to convey the deepest recesses of his Ivanhoe character, a man who would rather die a free man than live as a slave. “The idea of having something come hard and fall harder – you know, that resonated with me, really stuck with me.”

What resonated with Cliff also resonated with audiences in America who made the soundtrack album to “The Harder They Come” an instant underground and mainstream classic. The singer suspected he would have a hit on his hands, but was reminded of how big the soundtrack was when he played Carnegie Hall in 1974.

“I’ve always known that “Many Rivers to Cross” was one of my best songs, and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” had already been a hit for Desmond Dekker, so I knew their power,” says Cliff. “They were big songs in Jamaica, so that was a great signal. But when we played in America after the film opened for the first time, at Carnegie Hall, the experience was wild, and the theater was packed.”

Bringing Cliff back to New York City and the Public Theater for Suzan-Lori Parks’ take on “The Harder They Come” — a musical with socio-political significance, and a subtext relevant in the present day — the songwriter stated the process was a quick one.

“I was informed of the desire to make it into a musical, then the next thing you know, they were rehearsing it,” Cliff said. “I wasn’t exactly aware of what the script was and where they were going, but I imagine that making it relevant to today could work. As a film, there was a socio-political undercurrent running beneath its surface.”

On the topic of adding more Cliff songs such as “Better Days are Coming “ to the play’s soundtrack, he is thrilled. “The Harder They Come” is an album and a story that grows wilder with each passing year, and has now morphed onto the Off-Broadway stage. Having additional Cliff songs only emboldens its drama.

Adds Cliff: “I knew that they wanted to expand its soundtrack into having more of my songs — which is great. I couldn’t be happier. … The movie and the soundtrack were a big part of my career. I don’t know for certain what it is that I am most proud of when it comes to my body of work, but I do know that I am really proud of ‘The Harder They Come.’”

Originally published at

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