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UK 1959
Directed by
Val Guest
111 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Expresso Bongo

No-one would call Expresso Bongo a good film but as a portrayal of the contemporary phenomenon of “teenagedom” a couple of years before The Beatles burst on the scene and the floodgates of change opened, it provides a nice slice of social history, a kind of anodyne version of the realist films such as Look Back in Anger that were just beginning to appear at the time.

Laurence Harvey plays wannabe show-biz agent, Johnny Jackson, who, thanks to his girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms), a singer in a burlesque show, discovers a young man, Bert Rudge, (Cliff Richard) in one of Soho’s newly fashionable expresso bars that are home to the “jazz” music that teenagers love to wig our over.  He grooms him for stardom as “Bongo Herbert” but even then the music industry was a cut-throat one and Johnny find himself out-chiselled by more experienced players.

Adapted from a successful play by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More, with Mankowitz credited as screenwriter, Expresso Bongo was quite racy in its day with its topless girlie show (Syms is regularly referred to as a stripper but keeps her kit on) and its cynical portrayal of the seedy lives of small-time show-biz entrepreneurs. Today it is its naiveté that gives it its appeal, the film coming across as a quaint hybrid of traditional Hollywood show-biz musical with English kitchen sink values.

Harvey who distinguished himself the same year in the British realist classic A Room At the Top is an incongruous presence as the Jewish hustler (his Jewishness is out-flanked by that of Meier Tzelniker as the head of an established record company) but gives the role his all.  A chubby 19 year-old Cliff Richard, then being touted as the British Elvis Presley but closer to Ricky Nelson, amply demonstrates how much better his singing abilities were than his acting (he sings his real life hit "A Voice in the Wilderness" and, in one of the film’s delightfully kitschy moments, a similar quasi-religious song, “The Shrine On The Second Floor”.  The Shadows play Bongo’s backing, Sylvia Syms acquits herself well opposite Harvey whilst Yolande Donlan plays an American chanteuse who tries to revive her fading star with Bongo's youthful hormones.  Sir Cliff probably tries not to think of his performance in this respect.

For nostalgia and retro buffs Expresso Bongo is quite a treat.

DVD Extras: Alternative takes; Image gallery, Theatrical trailer; Audio Commentary, Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired and two short films, Youth Club (1954) and The Square (1957)

Available from: Madman




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