Dillinger out "by the rivers of Babylon," the fable of Johnny Too Bad. The country lad (Jimmy Cliff) comes to Kingston and gets a rough lesson in pop economics, even the mango of righteousness is promptly filched. At the local congregation, he woos the preacher's protégé (Janet Bartley) and mends the torn bicycle and gets flogged for his trouble; at the recording studio, his blazing reggae anthem goes for $20. Off to the underworld, then, suddenly a fugitive after a roadside killing (filmed with a flash of À bout de souffle) and a hot-dog rebel with a jukebox hit. "Tell me when you catch him, so I can get him to do another record before you string him up, okay?" Song and ganja as the parallel poles in a distillation of neocolonial capitalistic rat-race, Perry Henzell serves it up as a musical fever in a ragged, riotous key. A revolutionary in his own mind, Cliff contemplates a vast rubbish heap and springs to life before the microphone, performing the title tune ("But I'd rather be a free man in my grave/Than living as a puppet or a slave") as if exorcising it. On the run, he pauses long enough to pose for autograph stills with revolver and cheetah prints or to ecstatically zigzag his new pearly convertible to the rhythm of "You Can Get It If You Really Want." The gangster models from the Thirties on are jangled in a sun-baked image of reds and greens and yellows, a clash of beats and film stocks even, a handheld camera that becomes an opponent's face during a knife fight. Pontecorvo's Queimada! and Cohen's Black Caesar are adjacent, the dead end on the surf is a movie memory, the hero can't die until the last reel or so they say. "Didn't I tell you I was gonna be famous one day?" With Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Heartman, Basil Keane, Bob Charlton, and Winston Stona.
--- Fernando F. Croce