You might be forgiven for assuming that Expresso Bongo would be something that you didn’t need to see. After all, it stars Cliff Richard, and we all know how awful both he and his movies are, right? And then there’s the silly, fluffy title that promises little. And it’s a musical. How could this be anything other than lightweight, disposable rubbish?
In fact, Expresso Bongo is a rather excellent film, and far removed from the cheesy teen flick that you might have expected. It’s a deeply cynical, is ultimately slightly sentimental look at a Soho long gone – a world of coffee bars, strip clubs, wheeler dealers and hustlers out to make a quick buck as an impresario – in many cases, one step away from a pimp in terms of morality. Laurence Harvey is Johnny Jackson, a session drummer turned would-be manager who is looking for that big break – though his acts to date are failing to deliver. His stripper girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Sims) would seem to be a good prospect – perky, cute, talented – but he’s blind to her abilities (or perhaps worried that he’ll lose her if she makes it big) and rather takes her for granted.
Things turn around for him when he discovers Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) performing in a coffee bar, and realises that the teenage boy has star quality. Bert is amiable but none to bright, and soon Johnny has signed him to an exploitative contract (“you get 50% of all you earn”), changes his name to Bongo Herbert and is hustling him around record labels, signing a weak but potentially lucrative deal with the equally shifty and old-school Mayer (Meier Tzelniker) and effectively conning his way onto TV to sell his protégé. Soon, Bongo is the new teen idol, and when he is boked on a TV show with ageing Hollywood star Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan), it seems his career is set. But Dixie has her own plans – in terms of both career and romance – for the innocent Bongo, and once she discovers that Johnny’s contract is not even legal, she begins to prize the boy away, while also opening his eyes to the fleeting nature of fame.
As a satire of the likes of music Svengali Larry Parnes, Expresso Bongo is an impressively tart little story, and one that all too accurately reflects the early days of British rock ‘n’ roll, where young boys were chewed up and spat out by Tin Pan Alley money men. As Jackson, Harvey is breezy, sleazy and all too convincing – he’s never entirely unlikeable, even when doing terrible things – you almost believe him when he states that he’d still be paying Bongo a fortune once he struck it big – just half the fortune he’s actually making. Certainly, you feel a touch of sympathy when Bongo sends him packing, as he prepares to move on – the kid might not be bright, but the film suggests that he has an instinctive mercenary streak, and the final scenes imply that he will use anyone as a stepping-stone to fame.
Johnny seems sympathetic in part because in a pool of sharks, he’s actually pretty small fry. All his media manipulation is nothing compared to everyone else he comes into contact with Mayer and Dixie are far more ruthless and skilled than he is when it comes to screwing with people and getting what they want. In the end, Johnny doesn’t come across as a bad guy – ambitious, but out of his depth, and far less successful as a spiv than his more respectable rivals.
Decades of bland, tedious rubbish from Cliff Richard are hard to shake off, of course, but if we forget everything from the early 1960s onwards, then it’s easier to be impressed by him here. His performance is hard to judge – either he’s very good as the one-dimensional, rather thick Bongo, or he’s giving a wooden and flat performance – the results may well be very similar. But he has the looks of a teen idol – hard to think of Cliff Richard as a good-looking teenager, I know – and fits the part perfectly. It’s interesting to see how real life would reflect art in later years – in the film, Johnny attempts to broaden Bongo’s appeal by presenting him as a deeply religious boy, giving him the sickly A Shrine on the Second Floor to perform on TV – in real life, Richard (who, lest we forget, also changed his name in pursuit of stardom) would also become increasingly religious, and had his later hits with grimly sentimental Christmas numbers.
Val Guest directs with his usual flare – the film hits the ground running and rarely slows down for a moment. He brings to life a vibrant, rather sleazy Soho – the sort of Soho that we all still wish existed now – and he treats his characters, who could easily have been stereotypes, with respect. Donlan fleshes out what initially seems to be a trivial character nicely, and Syms is excellent as the kind-hearted stripper, managing to be sexy and charming without resorting to cliché. The strip club scenes, incidentally, are surprisingly fleshy for the time – no nipples of course, but plenty of bare, jiggling flesh all the same (the film had an A – PG by modern standards – in 1960; the entirely wholesome blu-ray is now rated 12. Sigh…).
The oddest aspect of the film is its musical status. Given that it is based around the music world, then of course we get assorted numbers performed on stage. But some 40 odd minutes into the film, the characters actually break out into song in traditional Hollywood musical style. It seems weird and out of place – the songs are rather weak, very short and add nothing to the film (and given that this is pitched as a rock ‘n’ roll movie, these rather more traditional numbers feel very out of place. Only two songs from the original stage show made it to the film – it might have been better if the whole lot were simply dropped.
Expresso Bongo is a fun, lively and acidic slice of nostalgia, and one that still feels relevant and entertaining today. The new edition is the full-length original version, unseen since 1962 when an edited version was reissued (this version, the one previously available on video, is also included here).
As ever, the BFI disc comes with interesting extras. As well as the re-edited cut, the disc includes Youth Club – an inadvertently hilarious 1954 documentary about teenage boys (all of whom look about 40) being kept away from “pin tables” by youth clubs that offer such delights as visiting pensioners and scrubbing floors – and Michael Winner’s debut film, the short and uncharacteristically sweet The Square from 1957.