Live, alas, and on-stage: ‘The Harder They Come’

Dem-a-loot, dem-a-shoot, dem-a-wail
Dem-a-loot, dem-a-shoot, dem-a-wail

When a big movie comes unexpectedly out of a little country, it’s an event to remember, and everyone will  recall the 1973 release of “The Harder They Come,” the Jamaican reggae-infused gangster film. I first watched the movie as a high-school kid during the Nixon presidency, Spiro Agnew still a contemporary political figure, and me thinking, “Whew, I need to see this again.” Which I have done, many times in various cities. Bought the soundtrack, too, along with anything I could get my hands on by Desmond Decker and the Aces, or the Maytals (later Toots and the Maytals), and then the entire Wailers catalogue. We spent years amusing ourselves by reciting the script’s best lines, waiting for the most inappropriate occasions to begin imitating the Trenchtown patois: “Gimme break, mon” and “Don’… fawk… wid me!”

Jimmys shirt: It sure would look good on you, dad
Jimmy's shirt: It sure would look good on you, dad

It would seem like a wonderful idea to base a stage musical on this landmark movie. The first British version was staged in 2006, and moved to the West End last summer, to positive reviews. The original cast is now appearing in a touring edition, which I caught in Toronto last week.

It’s always a hell of a thing to see what the passage of 36 years has done to our culture. The film used a cinema-verite technique to depict reggae as, in Bob Marley’s phrase, Rebel Music, imported from the teeming Third World. Now, the music is as safe and familiar as any other packaged consumable. The Canon Theatre had a big display for Red Stripe Jamaican lager — in contrast to the obvious reality that when the Rude Boy scene was emerging, the brewers must have been terrified that their trucks would be looted by rechet-carrying yoot. More galling still: the distinctive jersey worn by Jimmy Cliff in the film version, an item I’ve searched for high and low and would have gladly paid a fortune for on E-bay, was being sold at souvenir stands at a brisk rate to ridiculous middle-aged men exactly like myself.

The performance is lively and spirited, and all the other verbs reviewers use when what they’re really trying to say is that the show isn’t all that good. The story has lost something — actually, a few things — in translation from gritty movie to slick musical. You get the feeling the producers’ first choice would have been to obtain rights to that other Jamaican-themed movie, the 1993 John Candy comedy “Cool Runnings,” but that was a Disney film and you know what those Disney people are like to deal with. Momsers.

Instead, they’ve Disneyfied all the rough edges out of a story that, to begin with, was perhaps not that much more than the sum of its rough edges. What’s left is one of those frenetic song-and-dance musicals with a few comic turns, done in tribute to the swell old music of bygone days, viz. “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” That’s well and good, except three of the show-stopping ensemble numbers in this production have been imported from somewhere that isn’t “The Harder They Come.”

You get Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” always a treat to hear, but not part of the original film, perhaps for the reason that it has nothing to say about the story line. You also get “Day-O,” made famous by Harry Belafonte, as a sop for those who would leave might leave the theatre disappointed after seeing a musical that’s supposed to take place in the Carribean that doesn’t include “Day-O.” Worst of all, you get not one, but two renditions of the Jackie Wilson classic, “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher,” and that’s two more than were required. Wilson was a great artist, who experienced a severe myocardial infarction while onstage, just as began to sing the lyric of that song that begins, “My heart….” He probably deserves a West End musical of his own, but what he surely does not deserve is to have his signature song plopped mindlessly into the mandatory church-gospel scene of a mediocre stage play. Wilson wasn’t mediocre, and, for that matter, neither was he West Indian, which gives you an early sense of how quickly things veer off-course.

The cast is good, and the singing is very fine. Rolan Bell makess a plausible Jimmy Cliff stand-in, and Chris Tummings does a better-than-adequate job belting out Toots Hibbert’s “Pressure Drop.”

Unfortunately, this just serves to recall how all the uneven pleasures of the movie have been flattened into a flavorless paste in the musical. The first glimpse of Toots on screen was potent enough to raise him to top billing in his group, and then to ceaseless global acclaim. The character played by Tummings, as seen on film, was an intriguingly conflicted figure, a sympathetic authority figure who determined that it was a necessary part of keeping the peace in raucous Kingston, to turn a blind-eye to the ganga trade.

The musical encourages a re-examination of the movie — and the movie is a superior work, in every respect. Viewers who haven’t seen the film for several years will be delighted to recall such wonders as Bob Charlton’s quietly malevolent portrayal of the local music tycoon, Hilton, a pale, pipe-sucking presence who dictates what the islanders will hear on the “heet parade.” His assistant is a benign Sino-Jamaican, which draws attention to the simple reality that the former colony is and was far more complex and multi-dimensional than its image might lead you to first think. The musical discourages this kind of complicated thinking, to its detriment.

Admittedly, some especially violent sequences from the celluloid edition would be difficult to assign to live actors. Jimmy Cliff’s character, provoked, attacks his tormentor with a knife, and is sentenced to be lashed. The film vividly shows Cliff being flogged by authorities, while his bladder involuntarily empties. The voice heard over these images is that of the sentencing magistrate, as he thoughtfully delivers his verdict, offered with regret, but also calculated to encourage rehabilitiation and maintain public order.

This depiction is intended to be considered antideluvian and brutal — but today seems nearly enlightened, compared to the contemporary American practice of providing wholesale lengthy incarceration for non-violent offences.

Another striking scene from the movie that failed to make it on stage involves the Jimmy Cliff character, who while seeking work, wanders into the estate of a wealthy Upper St. Andrew housewife, played by Beverly Anderson. There is a half-moment of mutual sexual tension, as the lady of the house mildly flirts — and then the Jamaican class-structure inevitably and abruptly kicks in, as Ms. Anderson haughtily dismisses him from her grounds.

Prime Mininster and Mrs. Manley
Prime Mininster and Mrs. Manley

Art meets life: That actress became the wife of Prime Minister Michael Manley, a mixed-race politician who won election after shrewdly becoming the first candidate to usurp the emerging musical movement by employing a reggae campaign theme, “Better Must Come.” The international ambassador and exemplar of reggae, and the tiny nation’s great poet, Bob Marley, was another Jamaican of mixed-race, who touched audiences on every continent.

The power of the music, and of the movie, is a slice-o’-life authenticity that still resonates through the generations. The stage play is a stylized slice-of-show business that offers an extended brand experience, some heart, but not too much mind or soul. Fifteen minutes after leaving the theatre, you’re thinking you’d like to go home and watch the movie one more time on DVD.

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