Off the Cliff

The Harder They Come tells an old, archetypal, and popular story. Its mythological taproot might be the tale of "Stagger" Lee Shelton, a 19th-century black American pimp who killed a man named Billy Lyons for stealing his hat. Shelton died in prison in 1912, but his shade had already escaped jail: Two years earlier, musicologist John Lomax had published the first song to bear the man's name, romanticizing him as both a boogeyman and as a symbol of black self-assertion. By the time Shelton passed away, he was a hit in the segregated bars of the American South. Black men revered him, white men feared him, and regardless of hue, all men found something irresistible in his myth.

In the past century, Stagger Lee has been resurrected by Mississippi John Hurt, Bob Dylan, Fats Domino, Bill Haley, the Clash (in "Wrong 'Em Boyo"), and dozens of other musicians — even Pat Boone. According to the writer Julius Lester: "Stagolee was, undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived. Stagolee was so bad that the flies wouldn't even fly around his head in the summertime, and snow wouldn't fall on his house in the winter."

Soon after Lester wrote those words in the late '60s, the myth had a renaissance with the film The Harder They Come, directed by Perry Henzel and starring Jimmy Cliff. It was a dramatization of the life of a very real man, Ivanhoe Martin, who embodied in truth many of the qualities Stagger Lee achieved only in song. It is impossible to know if Martin, growing up in Jamaica in the '30s, ever heard Mississippi John Hurt sing about Stagger Lee. What we do know is that, consciously or not, Martin internalized Lee's myth. For when Martin shot a cop under circumstances that have never been made clear, he instinctively grasped the pop culture potential of his fugitive-hood. He bought flashy outfits, went on the run, manipulated the press, released statements, posted signs in public places, and inspired the devotion of a populace sick to death of police corruption — whoever Martin had killed, they thought, probably deserved it. With a new, catchy nickname — "Rhyging" — and a growing following, Martin eluded capture for weeks before dying in a gun battle on Lime Cay Beach.


The Harder They Come

By Perry Henzel. With Rolan Bell, Lain Gray, and Joanna Francis. Through September 13. Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org

In the film The Harder They Come, Martin is more than a killer with pop acumen: He is a pop star, topping the charts with reggae hits that would make the genre famous. Cliff's songs, including "The Rivers of Babylon," "Pressure Drop," and "You Can Get It If You Really Want," appeared on maybe the greatest soundtrack ever made, and they changed pop music forever.

That The Harder They Come is now a stage musical should surprise no one. (If Abba made the grade, anything can.) What's surprising is how gritty it remains. Even at the posh Adrienne Arsht Center, the rude boy magic is rude and boyish. The music helps, as does a stripped-back set. (The stage's rear wall has been removed to expose the cavernous warehouse beyond, and the space is decorated with nothing but a poster and a mess of musical instruments.) What sells it is a brilliant young cast, which takes the old bones of Martin's story and rattles them into something new and beautiful.

And it's told with remarkable economy of exposition — through prosaic snippets of conversation, pantomime, song, and dance. Especially the last two, for the conversations tend to be short and often difficult to interpret through the actors' curry-thick patois (which is largely faked, by the way — the cast is predominantly British). If I've heard more expressive singing in a touring musical, I can't remember it; the harmonies are strong, sure, and lovely, and the soloists deserve immediate record contracts. I'm thinking of Lain Gray, who plays Pedro, the man closest to Ivanhoe. He's blessed with an impossibly sad voice that seems to sob each time it swoops into falsetto. And I'm thinking of Joanna Francis as Ivanhoe's church-mouse girlfriend, Elsa, whose voice begins all silky-wispy and then grows higher, stronger, and steelier, climbing up and up until it's like a glittering edifice in the sky. A young woman sitting behind me in the theater described Francis's singing as "The craziest shit I've ever heard."

But most of all, I'm thinking of Rolan Bell, who plays Ivanhoe in a way you've never seen before. In the movie, Jimmy Cliff arrived onscreen pre-defeated. Only 23 years old during filming, he looked like an old man: resigned to a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. He is supposed to be shocked when the church, the music biz, and a marijuana magnate reveal themselves as corrupt, but his shock looks half-assed and feigned. Of course they're corrupt, his eyes say. Every game is rigged. I know that.

At the Arsht Center, Ivanhoe most definitely does not know that. Bell is full of such irrepressible cheer that his arrival onstage is something very much like dawn breaking. Though Bell is a few years older than Cliff was, he looks decades younger — like a kid who has yet to learn that charm does not conquer all. Bell's smile, naive charisma, and plain goodwill are reminiscent of Ragged Dick with a beat. He's galvanizing.

In almost every one of the blaxploitation films that followed The Harder They Come during the '70s — most of which were based on the Stagger Lee or Ivanhoe myth, whether the directors knew it or not — Jimmy Cliff's tired eyes were the ones that stared at you from the screen, looking out sadly from the heads of Pam Grier, Ron O'Neal, and hundreds of others. Like The Harder They Come, those flicks took corruption as a given — when every game is rigged, this is what heroism looks like.

To see The Harder They Come driven by Bell's happy rebellion is to see something altogether new: Ivanhoe Martin really expects justice, and its absence feels like a violation. Bell's Martin dies waiting on the world to change.

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