Revisiting Jimmy Cliff on Night Flight: A “Harder” Sequel Coming Soon!

By on April 1, 2015

Today is reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff’s birthday — he was born James Chambers on April 1, 1948, in the rural village of Somerton in St. James Parish, on the northwest end of Jamaica — so we thought it would be a good day to revisit his appearance on Night Flight in the 80s. Have a look.

Cliff went gone on to worldwide acclaim after starring in the film, winning a Grammy Award for his album Cliff Hanger in 1985, and he was eventually awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honor granted for achievements in arts and science in Jamaica. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. His most recent album, Rebirth, was released to great acclaim in 2011, certifying him as one of the most successful artists in Jamaican history. But it has been a long road, with many rivers to cross along the way.

He quit school in 1961, at the age of 13, and left Somerton for Kingston to pursue a music career, changing his surname to Cliff and recording his first single “Daisy Got Me Crazy” that very same year, finding success at age 14 with “Hurricane Hattie” before joining a government-sponsored tour of Jamaican vocalists. This tour quickly led to Cliff finding work as a backup vocalist in London, and then to performing all over Europe during in the mid-sixties. He released several albums over these next few years, including the 1969 album Wonderful World, Beautiful People (it was released in the U.S. on A&M Records.)

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In 1970, a white Jamaican filmmaker named Perry Henzell, a former advertising director who grew bored with making commercials that didn’t reflect the reality he was seeing, wanted to introduce a wider audience to the true realities of Jamaican life, and after seeing Cliff on one of his album covers, sought out the young singer to record songs for a low-budget film he wanted to direct, which he called The Harder They Come. It was to be the first full-length film shot in Jamaica with a full Jamaican cast and director. According to Cliff, nine months later, Henzell now also wanted him for the starring role.

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In the film — co-written by Henzell and Trevor Rhone — Cliff portrays Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a black Jamaican who leaves his deceased grandmother’s home in the Jamaican countryside, traveling to Kingston to bring his mother the remaining pocketful of cash from his grandmother’s savings. He’s also a singer-songwriter who, not unlike Cliff just a few years earlier, is trying to make it in the music industry in Kingston, but he ends up being forced into a kind of Robin Hood-gangster existence by the oppressive island government.

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Along the way, he encounters a corrupt local police team with flame-thrower bearing American soldiers, ostensibly to restrict international smuggling of ganja, while also potentially seizing distribution of a sacrament within Jamaica’s Rastafari movement. Ivan is jailed, and then beaten, for a relatively minor crime, and once he’s released from prison, Ivan gets in a fight with another man over a bicycle and brutally slashes the man’s face. There’s a great scene showing him watching a spaghetti western, and later he becomes the six-shooter-toting cowboy hero in his own life.

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In the end, Ivan’s song is on every radio, but he’s on the run and there’s nowhere he can hide. And all over Kingston graffiti begins to appear, reading, “I was here but I disappear,” and “I am everywhere.”

Henzell’s storyline was actually based on a real criminal, also named Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin, who terrorized sections of west Kingston in the late 1940s, but Harder updates the story to the 70s in order to also capitalize on changes going on in Jamaica at the time (the country had only become independent in 1962), showing the characters wearing the kinds of floppy hats and wide-collared threads seen in Blaxploitation films around that same time.

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The songs that Cliff wrote and performed for the film, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Sitting Here in Limbo,” have remained Cliffs best known pieces and have positions in the history of reggae as vital as any of Bob Marley’s most memorialized songs. In fact, Marley would actually follow in Cliff’s footsteps, touring and performing at many of the same American theaters that screened the film. But, Cliff’s rendition of the title song in a recording studio is one of the greatest vocal performances ever captured on film.

The film and the soundtrack were both released in 1972, featuring Cliff’s songs alongside the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town,” The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” and songs by a few other acts.

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Initially, screenings of the film in Jamaica were so explosive that they started riots, and theaters became so packed that, in one interview, Henzell claims they didn’t start the projector until there were three people in every seat. “People just started screaming,” he said, “it was unbelievable, every director’s wildest fantasy.”

The Harder They Come debuted in America in 1973, and was shown on college campuses in New York City, New England and California, going a long way towards introducing those audiences to reggae music. Cliff himself never made more than $10,000 for starring in the film, but it went a long way towards firmly establishing him in the U.S. and England, and introducing him to a much wider audience worldwide. It became a Midnight Movie staple, showing in L.A. on Friday nights at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica.

Here’s Part One of Night Flight taking off to reggae, Jamaica’s “outlaw music”:

Lately, we’ve been hearing that Cliff will be once again playing the role of Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin, in a sequel to the film, even though his character was last seen going down in a hail of bullets. Cliff recently has been talking to newspapers and other publication in Jamaica, including The Jamaica Observer, explaining it this say: “We saw my character got shot up and we assumed he must be dead, but we didn’t see him buried. With the magic of movies, he was revitalized, served a number of years in prison, came out, and is currently pursuing his career again.”

The film, which is said to begin production later this year, will also feature Jimmy Cliff’s vocals, and he will be writing the soundtrack. Henzell’s daughter, Justine Henzell, will be co-producing the re-make alongside producer Trudie Styler.

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Cliff: “We don’t know what we’ll be calling it yet. But as with the first movie, we had called it Hard Road To Travel and somewhere along the way we called it The Harder They Come. Right now, we’re calling it Many Rivers to Cross.”

Cliff said the storyline is being put together by an established Broadway writer in New York, but couldn’t remember his name: “He is a scriptwriter, so he’s putting in a basic script form,” he said. “The Ivan character that I play had a child which he wasn’t aware of and the child was not aware that his father was a notorious outlaw. They kept that from the child who lived in London, while his father was in prison for about 40 years.”

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Jimmy Cliff today

In the meantime, Cliff is also working on three new singles with iconic producer Winston ‘Niney’ Holness. Most notable is a single, written by Holness, with Cliff on vocals. The project’s aim is to assist autistic children, as proceeds will go to the Jimmy Cliff Foundation and to autism schools in Jamaica.

“Niney and I know each other from a long way back. He’s a man with a whole lot of ideas. He always throws out ideas at me, and any one that I gravitate towards, I do. He told me the concept of the song, and that’s how we started. Autistic children are one of the areas that the Jimmy Cliff Foundation caters to,” he said.

Two additional tracks, “Animal Kingdom” and “Best Life,” are also to be released in the upcoming weeks, hopefully before he departs the island for a tour of South-east Asia.

Cliff: “I have a great fan base all over the world. In 2014, I toured for about five to six months. This tour will take me to areas such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore.”

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Henzell had originally set out to make three films about Jamaica — one about Kingston, one about the countryside, where Ivan had originally come from, and a third film discussing and depicting the struggle between the two places — but after The Harder They Come he continuously ran in to film financing problems. He wrote two novels, Power Game (1982) and Cane (2003), but wasn’t able to put together a sequel project starring Cliff before he died, in December 2006.

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About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.