Cliff Richard, Laurence Harvey, and Yolande Donlan Rock the Keen Scene



On his commentary for 1967’s British Dystopian rock satire, Peter Watkins’ darkly steadfast Privilege, filmmaker and historian Daniel Kremer makes mention of one of that film’s national and spiritual predecessors, Val Guest’s 1959 Expresso Bongo.  Kremer isn’t wrong.  In fact, his observation is all the more apt at the moment, as both films, within less than a month of one another, are seeing new and/or improved Blu-ray releases stateside.  (And let’s not overlook that both are now also fully reviewed here by yours truly!)  While both take on the then-recently emerged notion of a superstar teen heartthrob with a microphone, a selection of tunes, his face plastered everywhere, and a legion of screaming (mostly female) fans, the similarities do, of course, run out.  Primarily, while Privilege is far too prescient in our day and age to register comfortably as mere satire, (or perhaps, it’s simply old school Jonathan Swift-ian satire, the likes of which they don’t make anymore,) Expresso Bongo remains happily, cheekily, fossilized.

As its teen idol star Cliff Richard informs an older admirer, Expresso Bongo is “kind of square”.  Straight outta Soho circa 1959, that’s not really a knock.  The movie can’t help it, is all.  And while this sharp stick of a flick has a swell time prodding its intended teen targets (and everything around them), its hipness certainly lands as more Frank Tashlin than Peter Watkins (though black & white- none of Tashlin’s popping hues- but even more randy… which is saying something).  Just as The Girl Can’t Help It rocked around the rock pile just a few years prior as voluptuous Jayne Mansfield squealed, Expresso Bongo beats at the pump while a troupe of strippers (in truly barely-there costumes) come and go throughout the film.  Leading these particular numbers is Sylvia Syms, a lass far too cute and innocent in demeanor for such a thankless plight (both in terms of the character’s bit and the role itself).  

The many musical performances, both in-world and integrated, are good (particularly a tightly coordinated split screen number) and the music itself is even better.  Director/producer Val Guest, for all his potshots taken at the coffee shop “rebellion” of the youth set, does a formidable of depicting the budding scene and the neon-y, urban and modernized world surrounding it.  The film is never better than when the kids get to groovin’ on the dance floor.  It’s the newfangled widescreen frame a-hoppin’ and a-boppin’.  Clearly, the espresso- or, er, “expresso”– is freely flowing!

But for all that, it’s kind of hard to get into Expresso Bongo.  Based on a stage play of the same title from only one year prior, the nearly-two-hour film stars the venerable and always game Laurence Harvey.  The future Manchuurian Candidate star takes the ostensible lead as fast-talking and dishonest small-time talent agent Johnny Jackson.  His aggressively unscrupulous presence wears itself out around the midpoint, the spotlight shifting to Yolande Donlan as an aged smart-mouthed American actress/come-lately, kind of a modern Mae West.  Passed between the two is percussion rocker Cliff Richard as the naive youthful Bert Rudge.  When Johnny happens to catch Bert’s rollicking act at the neighborhood hangout, he cons him into signing a lousy 50/50 contract, dubbing him “Bongo Herbert”.  “Bongo Herbert! He’s got a chip on his shoulder and an H-bomb in his pants!” “Bongo” becomes a teenage sensation, naturally- but only after Johnny realizes that the missing ingredient is (wait for it…) religion.

Herein lies the most pronounced link between Expresso Bongo and Privilege (that film with its proto-Fellini lit-up crosses and cynical clergy looking to exploit rock fandom). While only a scant eight years separates the two, decades of compressed evolution occurred within rock in that span.  Bubblegum gave way to the British Invasion which gave way to psychedelia, with plenty of detours and offshoots along the way.  “Growth spurt” doesn’t begin to cut it.  This progression bears out in the tonal embodiment of the two films.  Both prove shockingly boundaries-pushing for their moment, but all in all, they cannot be separated from their microcosms. (Incidentally, both Cliff Richard and Privilege‘s Paul Jones would later become born again Christians, often crossing paths as performers in that capacity).

The official blurb on this handsome Cohen release states, “This 2K restoration from the original negative was done in collaboration with the British Film Institute and its Unlocking Film Heritage program. This is the full and original 1959 theatrical version, which includes a number of songs that were cut out of the later and more commonly available 1962 version that was released at the time to capitalize on the popularity of Cliff Richard.”  So, that’s cool.  Some devoted extras beyond the trailer, particularly a commentary track, would’ve been the bee’s knees, but alas, all we get is the movie itself.  Nevertheless, fans of this sort of thing won’t want to miss it.