The legendary Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivanhoe Martin, a poor country boy who comes to Kingston to become a reggae star. But as doors get slammed in his face, he finds himself working for pennies in a metal shop after a preacher who hates reggae music gets him the job.
When he finally gets to record his song ("The Harder They Come," of course), he thinks he's about to become a star, but the crooked record producer tries to rip him off, saying he'll buy the song for $20. After trying to sell the record himself to the clubs and street corners of Kingston, he goes back, and takes the money, his dream sold out for a few dollars.
A street hustler named Jose tells him the only way to get real money is to break into the ganja trade, so Ivanhoe becomes a dealer. But when supplies go short and Ivanhoe refuses to pay Jose for drugs burned by the army, Jose sends the cops, who're in the pockets of the ganja lords, after him.
Beaten down too many times, Ivanhoe goes outlaw, shooting a cop and going on the run. And for the first time, he's actually having fun. "Didn't I tell you I'd be famous one day?" he says to his girl, and sends posed studio photos of himself holding a gun to the newspaper. As he eludes the cops and takes down ganja dealers, he becomes a folk hero, with people singing his songs and tagging walls with his lines. In the one scene of pure joy, he walks into a resort and steals a fancy car, then drives it through the golf course.
The police shut down the ganja trade to force the dealers to turn him in, and he tries to escape to Cuba, but is betrayed. Cornered on the beach by troops with machine guns, he tries to turn it into a movie-style showdown -- "One bad man! Draw!" -- but goes down in a rain of bullets; they don't play by his romanticized rules.
The soundtrack is a true revelation, a breakthrough that spread reggae around the world. Every song is a classic, like "Johnny Too Bad," "Many Rivers to Cross," and "Pressure Drop," and it showed up at #119 on Rolling Stone's Greatest 500 Albums of All Time.
But the movie's not just a vehicle for the music, great as it may be. The story is loosely based on the real Ivanhoe Martin, an infamous Jamaican outlaw turned-folk hero nicknamed "Rhyging" who died in a police shootout in 1948. Director Perry Henzell had only worked on commercials, but the performances he captured from the actors, almost all from people who'd never acted, are solid and true (particularly Cliff, who's charismatic and childlike and violent all at once). It was filmed on a shoestring but it doesn't (usually) show, with great shots of chickens pecking in gutters and church choirs going into raptures that linger between scenes. And the big issues it presents, like the mix of poverty, drugs, religion, and corruption that shape the whole culture, never get in the way of the story's momentum.
The Harder They Come is a classic tale of a dreamer turned outlaw with one of the best soundtracks ever recorded, a window onto a time and place that ended up changing the music the world listens to. It may not be on people's must-see lists these days, but it should be right up there with Scarface and Goodfellas as one of the great gangster movies.