'The Harder They Come' is given a remix for the London stage

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The cult Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, introduced the young Jimmy Cliff and sparked a worldwide interest in reggae when it was released in 1972. Now the man behind the movie is working with a London theatre to produce a musical version of the story of a wannabe reggae star.

The cult Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, introduced the young Jimmy Cliff and sparked a worldwide interest in reggae when it was released in 1972. Now the man behind the movie is working with a London theatre to produce a musical version of the story of a wannabe reggae star.

Perry Henzell, the film's director, is working with the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, which has a reputation for developing black and Asian works, in association with UK Arts Productions to stage the show in October. The show will feature four of the best-known songs from the highly influential soundtrack, including "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want", after Jimmy Cliff and his record label agreed to grant the rights.

Henzell, now 68, spent five years trying, and failing, to develop the show on his own terms on Broadway and is now in London to discuss the details of staging it in Britain.

The aim is to transfer to the West End after Stratford. There are hopes it will emulate the success of the theatre's previous hit, Five Guys Named Moe, which was based on the music of the black American sax star Louis Jordan.

Henzell said yesterday that the musical was based on the film but adapted to the less realistic style of theatre. "The show will have the same vibe as the film, but it's much broader strokes." The film starred Jimmy Cliff as Ivan Martin, an innocent country boy who moves to the city of Kingston to become a reggae star, but finds only poverty and despair. He becomes a notorious gunman, in the mould of a real-life 1950s Jamaican outlaw, and eventually dies in a hail of police bullets.

No one has been cast in the title role, "but Jimmy Cliff is not going to be in it", Henzell joked. "He's lasted very well but he can't be 20 again. But I think he's very happy it's happening."

For Henzell, who trained with the BBC in London before returning to Jamaica to make commercials, the film was his first full-length feature.

When it opened in Kingston it provoked a riot, as 30,000 people clamoured to see it. But almost nobody turned up when it was originally screened at the Brixton ABC cinema in London. "None of the critics had deigned to go to the press screening. And no one had heard of reggae," he said.

Facing disaster, Henzell printed hundreds of flyers and within days the house was packed. The following Sunday he was "thrilled" to discover that George Melly had reviewed it in The Observer. He faced similar resistance in America, but after cracking the student audiences in Boston, it eventually ran for six years.

But he had no idea the film would have the impact it did: "I was making a little crime movie in Jamaica. I didn't know how far it was going to reach. I was amazed."

Since then, he has written a couple of novels and a musical about the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, but nothing that has ever been as successful. "It has been very good for me and made me an awful lot of friends all over the world and it means I've been able to do whatever I wanted to do for a very long time. I have very happy memories," he said.

Comments