Hit Me With Music:
Marley, The Harder They Come
I walked into the Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax a couple Wednesdays back for Jamaican Noir—a double-feature screening of Marley (a new documentary on the eponymous Bob) and Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come— and, nearly four hours later, walked out a free man, mine eyes and soul opened to the beauty, complexity, and way-of-life that is reggae. I believe dreadlocks may be in my future.
For those of you who, like me before my conversion, think of reggae as an enjoyable but fairly uncomplicated musical genre, I invite you to consider the surprisingly diverse range of moods this Jamaican export can induce in the listener. Searching for that spring in your step? Toots and the Maytals will work far more effectivelyan a cup of Joe or Johnnie Walker (maybe). Want to feel in harmony with the world but can’t afford prescription drugs? Throw on anything by Bob Marley and don’t look back. If you’re craving something a little more emotionally self-indulgent or need some help traversing the murky waters of an existential Rubicon, Jimmy Cliff is happy to oblige. Hankering for something with more of an edge, mad at The Man? Then fight the power with Peter Tosh and such socio-politically conscious songs as “Equal Rights,” “Apartheid,” and the inimitable “Legalize It,” whose pro-marijuana rhetoric has spawned a litany of musical and cultural mimics, though none quite as persuasive, cool, or unapologetically direct as this former guitarist of The Wailers, Bob’s backing band. And if you’re yearning for those soul-inflating moments traditionally reserved for the spiritual, more Marley is your answer. Yep, there’s more to reggae than reefer and Rasta.
The Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax (just north of Beverly) sports a stoner-basement vibe which I for one—recently torn from the bosom of college dorm life—find utterly charming. For cinephiles, it is a kind of Eden, the perfect venue for a consciousness-raising quest. By the way, don’t be misled by the word “Silent” in the title of the theater – you will not be subjected to soundless films about musicians. Instead, the title pays homage to the great actors of the silent era whose portraits adorn the theater’s walls.
I entered a modestly-sized, haphazardly lit theater space with a handful of other filmgoers scattered among the theater’s array of seats and leather-upholstered couches making up the front two rows (yes, they have couches). On this particular day, animated characters from the mind of Mayazaki (the theater is showing ten of his films in May), whimsical, psychedelic cartoons, and Jamaican B-movie actors dance across the screen as part of the pre-feature entertainment. I sunk into a front-row couch (alone worth the $12 admission) and waited for the first frames of Marley to flicker onto the silver screen.
Marley has the unenviable task of documenting the life of a legend. Few people are as seared into our cultural vernacular as Bob Marley, who didn’t so much capture the zeitgeist as he created one. His transcendent songs of freedom, faith, and revolution introduced the world to reggae and the everyday realities of Jamaicans. And much like Tupac, Biggie (aka Notorious B.I.G.), Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, and other artists lost to premature deaths, Marley’s stature has only grown after his passing, raising the question of how we distinguish between man and legend.
In Marley, context as much content drives director Kevin Macdonald’s attempt to tease a man out of the legend. The film moves chronologically, covering important moments in Marley’s life as Macdonald cuts between stock footage, interviews with friends (Cliff included) and family, and current-day shots of select locations. We learn about Marley’s impoverished upbringing as one of Jamaica’s lower class citizens; how this childhood was made more difficult by his mixed-race background—Bob’s father, whom he never saw, was English, his mother Jamaican—and how his struggle as an “outcast,” the moniker bestowed on him in these early days, guided his music and philosophy. We discover his early aptitude for the guitar and for music, the formation of what would become the Wailers, and of his burgeoning genius and explosive creative output. Macdonald also reveals Marley’s complicated relationship with his children—eleven with seven different women—about a love of football (soccer) that almost rivaled that of music, and about his deep spiritual conviction. There’s also the survived assassination attempt, the remarkable joining-of-hands he facilitated between Jamaica’s two bitter political rivals, a tragic and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer, and much more.
Such insights provide a well-rounded portrait and frame the world Marley grew out of and later shaped. Even so, I found Marley himself nearly as enigmatic and impenetrable at the end of Macdonald’s film as he was to me at its start. Any understanding I have of Marley comes not from a recitation of his life history but directly from his music. Yet oddly in the film, Marley’s music is peripheral, rather than central. We hear truncated songs and we see several abridged live performances, but these are ultimately cut short, ceding to an interview or separate clip. Tactics like these might work for lesser artists, but seem an awful waste of resources considering Marley’s repertoire and magnetic stage presence. Given that both Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were at one time separately attached to the project, it is hard not to wonder whether either man, each with a renowned concert documentary to his credit, would have taken a different approach.
Despite my quibbles with Macdonald’s structure, nothing, not even my couch-neighbor’s incessant munching on popcorn (free, by the way, if you are a Cinefamily member!), could prevent a spirit like Marley’s from shining through. Notwithstanding his legendary status, Marley was not immune to bouts of self-doubt; when it came to the women in his life, he was, shall we say, fidelity-challenged. What Marley does reveal is its subject’s uncompromising pursuit of truth—in his music and his spirituality. And it was this to me that was most striking. In an interview, Marley states matter-of-factly that the purpose of life is to be happy, and in the next breath, affirms that his wealth comes not from money, but from people. We’ve heard these bromides before, but the difference here is that when Marley says it, you really do believe him. We need only to turn to his music.
Were it not for Marley, Jimmy Cliff might be known as the godfather of reggae. You might have never heard of Cliff before (though he just played at Coachella and was a 2010 Rock and Roll Hall-of-Fame inductee), but it is because of him and a certain low-budget 1972 film featuring the man and his music that you have heard of reggae. That film, the now cult-classic The Harder They Come, was largely responsible for introducing reggae to American audiences and further ensuring that it did not remain an isolated Jamaican phenomenon (fun fact: it was actually distributed by legendary B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman). Not to mention that it boasts two of the best taglines that I’ve ever come across: “With a Piece In Hand, He Takes on the Man!” and “He Makes Woman and the Charts and Is on Top with Both.” You’ve gotta love the clunky though endearing attempt to position him both as lothario and tough-guy.
In Harder, a 24-year-old Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, a poor Jamaican kid trying to make ends meet in a Jamaica bearing little resemblance to the idyllic paradise of sandy beaches and five-star resorts that travel guides promote. Hoping to improve his prospects, Ivanhoe travels to the big city, Kingston, where he tries his hand unsuccessfully at some odd jobs, before cutting a hit reggae track, only to be coerced into signing away the song’s rights by the local recording mogul and resident capitalist exploiter. Down and out, Ivanhoe is then approached by an old friend who offers him a lucrative opportunity to deal weed (what else). Women, money, and success follow as Jimmy quickly becomes immersed in a life of crime and violence. As it seemingly must, the implacable hand of fate (and the law) intervenes, culminating with Ivanhoe, guns blazing, being mercilessly gunned down by a band of cops.
Sounds familiar, right? Apart from adhering to the basic narrative arc of most crime dramas, The Harder They Come is Jamaican Scarface with a bildungsroman bent, but instead of Al Pacino in the fledgling stages of his descent into overacting, we get the understated, cool-as-they-come Cliff, charming and relatable, and glorious music, oh what music! If imdb.com “trivia” is to be believed, Harder was the first feature film produced in Jamaica and it epitomizes the low-production endeavor— inconsistent lighting, lone camera, contrived dialogue, clumsy pacing—but the film’s soundtrack, mostly Cliff tracks, masks any cinematic flaws. Indeed, it does much more. It adds thematic continuity, forms the film’s emotional fulcrum, establishes mood, and above all, makes the viewing experience fun.
If Marley concerns himself with the spiritual, Cliff concentrates on the secular. Songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want It,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and the “The Harder They Come,” draw upon reggae’s anti-establishment roots, giving voice to both the immediate socio-political realities of post-colonial Jamaica and more universal themes of inequality, institutional repression, and the individual’s role within such a moral maelstrom. This is a soundtrack for the 99%. Lyrically, reggae and Cliff’s version of it echo Motown, another genre that evolved out of social injustice. Both contain a hidden plaint about everyday hardships, but also speak more universally about the human condition, life’s travails, its heartaches.
These are weighty topics to be sure, but Cliff pierces your heart with song and does it in such a way that leaves you feeling more comforted than anguished, in solidarity with other wandering souls. “It’s a hard road to travel,” he tells us, but we’re gladdened to have him at our side.
My favorite moment in the film occurs during Ivanhoe’s diegetic recording of “The Harder They Come,” the song that propels him to anonymous stardom. The song’s defiant lyrics (“the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all”) and upbeat attitude work on several levels, drawing out the film’s central theme of human dignity and perseverance and casting Ivanhoe in a messianic role. Whether done intentionally or because of Cliff’s inexperience in front of the camera, Ivanhoe always seems so intensely relatable, a placeholder for everyone who’s ever tried to make it on their own. As the song gathers momentum and Cliff/Ivanhoe grows more comfortable (he is essentially auditioning for the recording baron), the camera slowly pushes in on Cliff’s face, coming to rest in an intimate close-up, which it then holds for about thirty seconds (an eon in film time for an unbroken shot). Prominent beads of sweat cover Cliff, his eyes closed in what might best be called an energetic trance. It is one of the film’s few truly great cinematic moments.
So, take the plunge with two Jamaican fellow-travelers, become a member of the Cinefamily, come early, stay late, and claim a seat on your favorite couch. Jamaican Noir, sadly, is over, but the music lives on in many forms. The man himself, the Honourable Mr. Cliff (he is an Order of Merit recipient, Jamaica’s third-highest honor), will be coming to Los Angeles on June 22 when he plays at Hollywood Park. Don’t know much (yet – stay tuned) about the park as a music locale, but no need to overthink this one—be there. And then in July (15th to be precise), the Hollywood Bowl hosts its annual “Reggae Night,” (I’ve been before and between the great music, Hollywood Hills vista, and colorful crowd, this is a can’t miss event). The reggae extravaganza will feature Toots and the Maytals and, wait for it…a Marley: Ziggy, Bob’s son, who will surely cover some of dad’s classics.
Warning: Prolonged listening to reggae may lead to sideways slippages into parallel universes, lengthy immersions into nostalgic reveries, and numerous delays in daily schedulings and appointments. Confession: This review would have been finished three weeks earlier had I not started listening to the complete works of Bob and Jimmy.