The Harder They Come: A Jamaican Snapshot

Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists

The soundtrack album to the now iconic Jamaican crime film of the same name has become something of a gateway record to those wanting to explore reggae music. Most consider it to be the album that brought reggae music to the world, though I think a more accurate statement would be that it brought reggae music to the world that had already heard Bob Marley but wanted to dig deeper. The Wailers’ Catch a Fire (from the same year) is equally as important in the general popularization of the genre, but The Harder They Come manages to capture some of the less popular artists of the genre and serves as a nice, if incomplete overview of that wild, live, disorganized music scene from as early as 1967 all the way to ’73.

Reggae has one of the most universal and infectious rhythms in the world. It’s also almost entirely signature to its home country, just as the raucous beats of early Rock and Roll are signature to America in the 50s. This record stands as a timeless testament to a time and a place above all else, like ‘The Indestructable Beat of Soweto’, ‘Nuggets’, and the ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’. If you were transported to Kingston circa. 1971, you might just hear every single one of these songs diegetically: the fuzzed out ‘Pressure Drop’ blasting out of a car stereo, ‘Draw Your Brakes’ on the street corner. Catch me, bruddah?

9 Rivers to Cross out of 10 (1 point deducted for repeating two Cliff tracks at the end. Well, it is a soundtrack, isn’t it.)   (-_-)

Choice Cut: Many Rivers to Cross

Goof: One critic said of reggae: ”its syncopation was a response to the rock that replaced shuffle r&b on U.S. radio in the early ’60s”. True, but (call me a cynic), would it be accurate to say that it’s signature rhythm was also a reaction to the sweet leaf?

Here is ”You Can Get it if You Really Want” by Jimmy Cliff, performed by Desmond Dekker. Trojan Records mistitled it as Dekker’s 007.

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Cable Hogue: Sam Peckinpah’s America

With a sprawling and studied work of masculine power under his belt (1969’s The Wild Bunch), a film that was one of the main factors in Peckinpah’s unfair gaining of notoriety as a merciless and violence-obsessed film-maker, Sam proved his skill in more tender and intimate character studies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, lyrical and modest in comparison to his other infamous works.

Sam Peckinpah stands among Martin Scorsese and Howard Hawks as one of cinema’s greatest philosophers of masculinity, if not the greatest. With the Ballad of Cable Hogue, it does seem glaring that he is clearly less in touch with the realm of the female, but then again; one of the main points of interest in films like Straw Dogs and Ride the High Country is how his male characters treat their women, and the juxtaposition of violence and tenderness. When his male characters show tenderness towards women, his filmic treatment of this actually seems more sexist (in my eyes, the man was never misogynist, although you can decide that for yourself). It’s nice that the majority of characters in this film are generally ‘good’. It’s also nice that some are confusing and dangerously morally dubious.

For a while, The Ballad of Cable Hogue seems to be an odd-one-out in Peckinpah’s catalogue: while the Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and Ride the High Country all lament the dying of the Old West and its values, this film displays that the old frontier spirit of work and patience is still existent in the new west (when Peckinpah’s film is set is not clear, though it is still judged as a ‘new/revisionist’ western). Jason Robard’s Cable Hogue and his love, Hildy, are given money by the bank (yes, an honest banker!) to build a home and develop the water well that he found, and build a happy community just outside of town. It seems that the honest frontier ethic is still alive, even when big cities are emerging.

Suddenly, Hildy leaves him to ‘see the big city’ and experience the high life just as his ramshackle development is beginning to thrive, but Cable carries on alone, adamantly. One day Hildy returns (right), looking utterly out of place in her new fancy San Francisco clothes, as if her earlier, simpler life was always drawing her back.
As a brit, I have observed that America is a nation built on technological advancement and committed to urban expansion, but simultaneously a nation that has a deep connection with its simple, wholesome rural past. Peckinpah displays this with the character of Hildy perfectly, a woman that is stuck in the limitations of small town life, and wishes for a brighter, more illustrious one, but still retains an intangible connection with that past life that ultimately draws her back. Note that Hildy returns in a ‘car‘, something completely alien to Cable, and it is this modern advancement that ends up killing Cable (he is run over by the car as he tries to stop it from rolling down a hill). Cable is buried in his proud little establishment, eternally bound from going any further than his dry old desert. American pride isn’t normally associated with melancholia and introspection, but this is a proudly patriotic statement if I’ve ever heard one.

8 Otto-mobeels out of 10

Dazed and Confused, 1993

Ric Linklater’s second feature-length movie finds him with a brilliant young cast, a perfect period soundtrack, and practically no plot. Dazed and Confused simply revolves around various groups of teenagers, students, seniors, freshmen, wise-asses, potheads and creeps, all watched by Linklater’s keen eye for comedy and teen spirit. It’s as if this is simply being observed and filmed, rather than ‘set up’, due to it’s completely believable yet perfectly caricatured cast (featuring many minor actors who would later become major) and stunning period accuracy of 1976 (check out the poster for Hitchcock’s Family Plot), the year rock ‘n’ roll broke to some, not to these kids.

It’s the last day of school in Austin Texas, seniors are ‘hazing’ (humiliating, abusing, harrassing) the freshmen, a party is organized and consequently busted, guys and girls hang out at the Emporium, drinking beer, smoking doobies, playing pool, getting burgers, and most of all, loitering. A game of mailbox baseball is played, then an impromptu party is held on the hill, all this performed in a nonchalant manner. For a movie with no narrative structure, it’s incredibly watchable and surprisingly fast-paced and snappy, littered with classic quotes and natural dialogue. Very few films have captured a time as well as this, so much so that the fact that it was made in 1993 seems almost impossible, and this is mainly because of the nuances and accuracies of it’s revolving list of characters. To add to this, for a teenage movie, Dazed and Confused is surprisingly unsentimental, or at least vaguely affectionate in a detached pothead kind of way.

Best Line: ”That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age…”

Goof: A boom mic is visible as a reflection in a classroom window. Tut tut…

8 Paddlin’s out of 10

Almost Famous, 2000 (Bootleg Edition)

Cameron Crowe, known for his nostalgic and insightful portrayals of teen culture throughout the ages, hit a home run with Almost Famous, undoubtedly one of the best movies about rock and roll and ‘coming-of-age’ in recent years. The fact that the film is based on Crowe’s own experiences as the youngest writer for the infamous Rolling Stone magazine, and his various adventures with some of the greatest rock bands of the seventies, ensures that it won’t just be another Dazed and Confused, but an ernest and realistic portrayal of the rock and roll lifestyle in all its wonders and grimy philosophical meanderings. The various details and comments that run throughout Almost Famous will delight keen fans of rock music, but even the great Roger Ebert stated that he was very nearly hugging himself with joy while watching. Make of that what you will.

Stillwater, rising stars in an era of hard rock where most had already risen and descended, bring the young William Miller backstage, who’s looking for an interview with Black Sabbath. There he meets Penny Lane, a so-called ”band-aide”, who goes on to be William’s mentor in the lifestyle of rock and roll, while the legendary critic Lester Bangs back home trains him in the art of music criticism, and advises him never to become ‘friends’ with members of a rock band. Young William is caught between two conflicting positions: The smart and intellectual condition of the lonely, sarcastic journalist, buried in a pile of books and LPs, seen as the enemy of the musicians, or the rock ‘n’ roller, living life to its silly fullest but missing the cerebral stimulation that sitting alone at a typewriter can bring. Throughout this journey, you can sense that everyone is coming of age, the groupies, the band members, and of course, William Miller.

Kate Hudson’s performance as Penny Lane is so brilliant and subtle; you can sense that Penny truly revels in the moral dodginess of what she’s doing at age (supposedly) 16, but seems to develop and mature over the course of the 158 minutes of this cut, the 36 extra minutes of the director’s cut (bootleg cut) being mostly devoted to further fleshing out her character. This film is so touching and funny, with neither overwhelming the other, but is also such an acute picture of 1973, the beginning of the end for many ‘true’ rock aficionados who were finding themselves dissatisfied at the thought of sales and merchandise overcoming the idea of a ‘youth cultural revolution through music’ that bands like The Stooges, MC5, and The Who brought about. Also, next time you find yourself gazing up at the ceiling in wonder of the glory of rock ‘n’ roll, think: There were the rock stars and musicians who made the art, and then there were the critics who, with their razor-sharp awareness of pop culture, deemed it as worthy of critical evaluation as Don Quixote or War and Peace. Even if that means over-evaluation.

Best Line: ”Jim Morrison? He’s a drunken buffoon, posing as a poet!”

Goof: Non-existent. Oh, wait. Joni Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t released until 1971, and William’s younger character finds it in 1969.

Heck, 10 Tiny Dancers out of 10

”Gimme The Guess Who! They got the courage to be drunken buffoons!”

Southern Comfort, 1981

When a group of National Guard numbskulls go on a weekend exercise in the rural bayou country, they anger the Cajun locals and are systematically hunted in an alien environment.

While The Warriors worked brilliantly as an urban chase thriller, the script could be cringe-worthy (“I’ll shove that bat up your a** and turn you into a popsicle…”, being the only good line), and the costume designer had clearly just raided Sly Stone’s wardrobe circa 1969 (right, below), Walter Hill showed a knack for creating a truly palpable sense of pace, which he further develops in Southern Comfort, with a better cast (that, for the most part, you actually care about) and a more tangible feeling of suspense.

In fact, he reworks the exact same plot of the previous film, that of a group going on the run after provoking a more sizeable antagonist, but changes the setting and general atmosphere, in this case being the calm bleakness of the marshy Bayou, accompanied by long-standing collaborator Ry Cooder’s haunting bottle-neck score. Often seen as a metaphor for Vietnam, due to its criticism of the gung-ho attitude and American cockiness, Hill has always asserted that this was not his intention: “We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.”‘ The point here, is that having a hostile, disrespectful attitude to the people that inhabit the land you are riskily treading, cannot be compatible with a lack of real ammunition and an insufficient intimacy of an alien surrounding. In other words, ‘don’t go firing blanks at people without assessing whether they can kill you.

This is definitely one of the best thrillers of its time, tightly directed and solidly acted. And it’s got Keith Carradine.

Goof: A distinct lack of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the soundtrack. ‘Born on the Bayou’, anybody?

9 Blank cartridges out of 10