Few music films provide anything more than the most ephemeral of entertainment, yet there are a handful that serve as important pieces of social documentary as well. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” Don Letts’ “Punk Rock: The Movie” and the early eighties’ hip-hop movie, “Style Wars” all captured a sense of the social and political climate of the time as well a s featuring some great music. 1973’s “The Harder They Come” performed exactly the same function for reggae music, and in doing so brought what had been, until that point an indigenous Jamaican music scene to the attention of the world.
Its star, Jimmy Cliff, makes his first ever visit to Scotland in a musical career that has spanned thirty eight years to introduce and talk about the film as part of the impending Trip Tych festival, and remains enthusiastic about this piece of his past.
“I look back on it and think that it does capture the spirit and feeling of the people in Jamaica at the time,” he says, “and I think that was why it was a success at the time and an important document now. The character I played was kind of a rebel on the wrong side of the law who was seeking independence and freedom, which I think was the same as a lot of the people at the time. The Rastafarian movement had a lot of the same values and was becoming increasingly important, and the music was another fresh and vibrant part of the whole Jamaican culture. So the film, I think covered musical, social, political and cultural matters.”
At the time of its release Cliff had already established himself as a successful international artist and lived in London during the later part of the sixties when he was signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and enjoying his first international hit in Brazil in 1968 with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” Even so, he had no idea of the film’s initial impact. Its opening in Kingston attracted 30 000 people trying to get a ticket and a glimpse of its star, while similar events took place around the world.
“I guess when we were making the film, we were aware of the interest in it,” he recalls, “but I thought that a lot of that was down to the fact the character was a kind of historical Jamaican figure and that not many films were made in Jamaica at that time. When it came out it was totally amazing. It did a lot to take the music (the soundtrack includes songs by The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Scotty as well as Cliff’s title track and one of his most renowned songs, “Many Rivers to Cross”) of Jamaica to the rest of the world, and I remember the opening of the film in London and Hollywood as well. The opening in Notting Hill Gate was mad, but it seemed to attract people from all over, not just the West Indian community and that was a great feeling.”
It could have been the start of a career in acting for Cliff, but a combination of his music career, which was at its peak around this time, and the lack of suitable roles has limited his subsequent output. A concert/ documentary, “Bongo Man” came out in 1980, and Channel 5 viewers may have recently caught sight of the rather inglorious appearance of Cliff with Peter O’Toole and Robin Williams in 1986’s “Club Paradise.” It did, however, re-ignite some interest in Cliff’s music in America.
“I had always loved acting,” he says, “and at school I was probably more interested in acting than I was in music, but I guess it is just the way things work out. I got noticed doing ‘The Harder They Come’ and was offered other roles, but I didn’t think that they were right. They all seemed to be like less interesting versions of the character I had already played.”
Tellingly, Cliff’s increasingly infrequent appearances in Britain (he has not played for nearly ten years) do not mean that he has stopped working. This is the first year that he has not spent the majority of his time on the road, as he has started work on a sequel to “The Harder They Come.” His global appeal is reflected in both his touring venues and the fact that, as well as London, he has lived at various times in Brazil and Senegal, before returning to Jamaica.
“I have tended to go where I have been most excited by the music and there has been a market for what I do,” he says. “Every year I tour in the States for about three months, but I also go regularly to Brazil and Argentina, the Far East and Africa.”
“The period I stayed in Brazil was very exciting because I made a few records that tried to fuse what I do with Brazilian music, and it was much the same when I was in Africa. I was really blown away by the music I was hearing young people in Senegal and Mali make. People like Youssou N’Dour: the whole scene was very young and aspiring and there was a freshness about it. I sang with a lot of these people in clubs, and felt that they were doing similar things for African music that we had been doing for the music of Jamaica twenty years before.”
Looking back on his career, Cliff is reluctant to pick out particular highlights, preferring to talk of the diversity of places, people and situations that he has encountered in the period.
“I’m at a stage now when I am never going to be able or want to do anything else apart from my music,” he says, “but when I look back on it I have enjoyed all the periods of my career for different reasons. The early period in Jamaica was a bit of a hardship, but the experience of recording for the first time and being paid a shilling for the song was something that I really appreciated. Then, coming to Britain was another challenge, because I was touring with British musicians that didn’t really know ska or rocksteady music and had to adapt to a whole new musical culture.
“The period around the film and going back to Jamaica when I had several big hits was great, but over the years perhaps the strong impact I have had in Africa is the most rewarding thing.”
With “The Harder They Come” the sequel ready to begin filming later this year, he hopes that it will have the same “grittiness” of the original and will have a similar impact on his own musical activities. It would be another remarkable twist in a pioneering life.