In 1970, Jimmy Cliff found himself at a crossroads. At the age of 26, the Jamaican singer-songwriter was already one of the pioneers and rising stars of reggae, having enjoyed top 10 hits in the UK with his joyous hymn to unity “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and a spine-tingling cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”. He was in London, preparing for an extensive tour, when he received an offer to star in a low-budget movie back home. “I said, ‘You know, I’m really glad to be here in Europe’,” recalls Cliff, now 78, his voice still rich and mellifluous as it sings down the line from his home in Miami. “It’s not wise to run all over the place and do something like that.”
Perry Henzell, the writer-director who wanted the musician for his film, flew to Britain to change Cliff’s mind. “He said one sentence to me that stopped me in my tracks,” remembers Cliff. “He said, ‘I think you’re a better actor than a singer’. I said to myself: wow! Nobody ever said that to me before, and I had always thought that! Somebody’s reading my mind! It happened like that. I cancelled the European tour that I was planning, and went to do the movie.”
The Harder They Come, back in UK cinemas this month to mark its 50th anniversary, became an instant classic when it was released on 5 September 1972. Rapturously received within Jamaica – where it was one of the first films to show the realities of life on the island and have characters speak in patois – it has also been credited with helping to introduce reggae to a global audience. The film’s indelible soundtrack brims with classics from many of the artists who helped shape the genre, including Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and of course Cliff himself, who contributed “You Can Get it if You Really Want”, “Sitting Here in Limbo” and “Many Rivers to Cross”, as well as the unforgettable title track.