There can’t be many pairs of hands as safe as Don Letts’s when it comes to music knowledge. A cultural polymath who has been front-and-centre of the music scene for over 40 years – as a musician, DJ, radio presenter, Grammy Award-winning music video and film director. Letts was one of the key figures in the introduction of reggae to the punk movement, working particularly closely with The Clash.
He’s returned to reggae, celebrating his first love with a series of podcasts for Turtle Bay (which has covered subjects like Lover’s Rock, Trojan Records’s 50th anniversary and the Notting Hill Carnival), and in his latest Reggae45 podcast, he has zeroed in on reggae’s place in Jamaican cinema. “With this episode Don takes the term soundtrack from a literal point of view, delving deep into the world of film and how the sound has a parallel connection with the story on the screen.”
The Citizen Kane of Jamaican cinema is Perry Henzell’s 1972 crime thriller The Harder They Come starring singer Jimmy Cliff. It became a phenomenon, packing cinemas across the island with Jamaicans who had until that point never really seen themselves represented authentically onscreen.
Over in the UK, the film was less of a box office Goliath, but its cultural impact is impossible to overestimate. “I saw it for the first time in at my local cinema in Brixton, and it was a major revelation for me,” remembers Letts. “I’m a first generation British-born child of Windrush, and we kind of knew what we were supposed to sound like from the music coming over from Jamaica, but there was no real visual accompaniment to that. The Harder They Come turned us on to the visual aspect and the attitude of Jamaican culture, so it’s tremendously important to us.
“The music, the style and the attitude were the things that captured our imagination. In the UK, that culture of music and style are inseparable.”
While the film struggled to make much of a dent at the box office – Perry Henzell spent weeks in Brixton handing out flyers to promote it – the soundtrack was a different matter altogether. Packed with hits by Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals and Desmond Dekker, the soundtrack was basically the best reggae compilation album you could buy. As far as Don Letts in concerned, “Two things really broke reggae globally, Bob Marley and The Harder They Come soundtrack. Between those two things, reggae took the planet!”
The presence of such laid-back classics as Many Rivers To Cross and You Can Get It If You Really Want might blindside new viewers expecting the film to be a merry jaunt akin to an extended Lilt advert. The Harder They Come pulls no punches, something Letts approves of wholeheartedly. “It’s rough and it’s rugged and it oozes attitude, and that’s what captured our imagination. It really opened my eyes to the possibility of cinema to inform, inspire and entertain. In fact, it was seeing the film that made me think that I’d like to express myself in a visual media, but that wouldn’t happen for another four or five year later when the whole punk rock thing exploded.”
Vying with The Harder They Come for classic status is Theodoros Bafaloukos’s Rockers from 1978, which for many is the one of the greatest music films ever made. Shot with a laid-back, cinema verité style, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace is the nominal hero, drumming for a local band and delivering records on a motorbike to the people, much to the chagrin of the nasty music industry moguls, who nab his bike. The classic soundtrack includes Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Dillinger, Jacob Miller and a haunting track by Burning Spear.
The ripple effect of The Harder They Come’s influence was soon felt across the Atlantic, particularly in London. Horace Ové had already directed the pioneering concert movie Reggae in 1971 by the time he directed Pressure, a bleak study of modern city life for young black immigrants. It was the first British film to be made by a black director and is now seen as a classic.
Equally fêted is Franco Rosso’s Babylon from 1980 which amps up the reggae that’s largely missing from Pressure, but is no less hard-hitting for that. Presaging the Brixton Riots a year later, it deals with the police brutality and out-and-out racism that characters like Blue (Aswad’s Brinsley Forde) had to put up with every single day.
Heading back to the Caribbean, 1982’s Countryman, directed by Bob Marley’s manager Dickie Jobson was a unique take on the spiritual side of Jamaica as personified by legendary Rastafarian fisherman “Countryman”, playing himself. Somehow a plot about political corruption nudges it into a chase film, after Countryman rescues two Americans and ends up on the run, using his unmatched knowledge of his home terrain to outmanoeuvre his pursuers.
As much as the film was a godsend to the department of Jamaican tourism, its greatest asset is a reggae soundtrack top-heavy with the sound of Bob Marley, who had tragically passed away only a year before Countryman’s release.
Turning Countryman’s spirituality-to-action balance on its head, 1999’s Third World Cop was a fully-fledged hard-edged actioner starring Jamaican superstar Paul Campbell as Capone, an ex-soldier who returns to the Kingston police and brings the fight to the criminals, Chuck Norris-style. Despite its noticeably harsher tone, the reggae soundtrack featuring Sly & Robbie gave it an unmistakably Jamaican heartbeat.
Jamaican cinema was not without its more comic moments. Trevor Rhone’s Smile Orange (1978) was a light farce based Rhone’s play, that took wry sweeps at the emerging tourism industry that had taken off like a rocket in the wake of reggae’s global popularity. The Lunatic from 1991 which was directed by 10cc’s Lol Creme (who you’ll recall didn’t like Jamaica – he LOVED it), ploughs a similarly light furrow.
The influence of The Harder They Come on Don Letts came full circle when he finally got a chance to make his own Jamaican movie. “I saw The Harder They Come and fancied myself as a filmmaker, and in 1997 with a bit of punk inspiration, I got to direct my first feature film, Dancehall Queen, shot in Kingston. It premiered in the same cinema that The Harder They Come opened in, and it became the highest grossing Jamaican film to date. And if you talk to young people about Jamaican movies, the first film they’ll mention is Dancehall Queen – not because it’s a better film but because it’s a younger film – but ultimately The Harder They Come is the ultimate Jamaican movie.”
Despite The Harder They Come’s cultural significance, Perry Henzell never made another movie, struggling to complete his follow-up No Place Like Home for years before dying in 2006. Accountants have never been especially good at monetising ‘artistic influence’ and as Letts puts it, the film was ‘all cred, no bread.’ However, if you’re only going to make one film, it might as well be The Harder They Come and he is still a hero to Letts. “I did get to meet Perry before he died. He was a very inspiring gentleman; very insightful into Jamaican culture. Over the years I’ve kind of ripped little ideas off him in countless videos.
“I’ve made about 400 music videos and in about 20% of them there’s a little nod to The Harder They Come. It took him years to make the film. He told me that the knife fight scene with Jimmy Cliff was shot over five or six weeks for various complicated reasons, so it was a very punk rock approach that Perry took to making the film.”
As far as Letts is concerned, the importance of Henzell’s Jamaican classic and its reggae soundtrack cannot be overstated. “If you look at Jamaica, it’s a tiny little island that’s spent hundreds of years under colonisation and in the 21st century, it’s managed to culturally colonise the whole planet.”
Put your feet up and listen to Don Letts’s look back on five decades of reggae in the movies right here.