Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, who was based on the real-life Jamaican criminal Rhyging, who may not have been a musician or a drug dealer but was the “original rude boy” and a folk hero in that country. Cliff said, “Rhygin was very much on the side of the people; he was a kind of Robin Hood, I guess you could call him.”
Director Perry Henzell believed that this movie was a success in Jamaica because people there had never seen themselves on the screen nor heard their native dialect, which may be English but still needs subtitles.
Cliff’s character moves to the big city, where he’s wowed by a screening of Django and just wants to make music, like the song which gives this movie its name. But the record producer he records it for controls the world of Jamaica’s music and even if it is a hit, he’ll probably never see the money. After falling into a life of crime, he becomes the kind of Hollywood gangster of his young dreams, sending photos to the press holding machine guns like some kind of Jamaican Dillinger. He’s doomed to die in the streets, riddled with bullets, but he’s going to grab every moment of glory that he can before the inevitable strikes him down.
New Line released this in February 1973 in the U.S. but it took over a year before midnight showings started building an audience. The soundtrack would introduce reggae to American listeners while Ivan was referenced in The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” with the lyrics, “You see he feels like Ivan, born under the Brixton sun. His game is called surviving, at the end of The Harder They Come.”