Review: 'Expresso Bongo' rises Above its Genre

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 25, 2022

Review: 'Expresso Bongo' rises Above its Genre

There were many silly teen pop flicks made in the late '50s and '60s in Britain and the U.S. that purported to be about rock singers breaking into the "business," but were just an excuse to showcase pop singers and songs that were usually strung together by the most cliche of screenplays. Hollywood would especially take advantage of cashing in on this frenzy via the Elvis Presley flick and the beach movies.

Val Guest's "Expresso Bongo," adapted from London stage musical of the same name (although only one song from the show remains in the film), is a bizarre, rather intoxicating, stingingly satiric concoction that feels quite ahead of its time and far better than most of the mindless musicals of its kind.

Laurence Harvey portrays Johnny Jackson, an ambitious wheeler-dealer manager with a stripper girlfriend (Sylvia Syms). Johnny hears Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) croon one night and books him into an espresso shop, but not before changing his name to Bongo Herbert. Bert is underage, so Johnny tries to hustle his skeptical parents into signing a contract. Bert's career soars, and all seems to be going well, until the great star Dixie Collins (a superb Yolande Donlan) gets involved and becomes protective of the boy.

Title notwithstanding, "Expresso Bongo" has much to recommend it. Firstly, the film has a clever script (by Wolf Mankowitz, based on Julian More's play) with hilarious, yet keen, moments (the Rudge family scenes are priceless). The black-and-white cinematography by John Wilcox is gorgeous, and is preserved perfectly in this exquisite Blu-ray 2K restoration transfer by Cohen Film Collection via the British Film Institute. The songs are mostly wonderful, and crisp and clear on the disc. (The placement of the musical numbers is curious, though.)

Guest's direction keeps the film moving nicely, and the cast is terrific.

Harvey would land his one and only Oscar nomination the same year this film was released, 1959, for the landmark "Room at the Top" with Simone Signoret (who would win Best Actress honors). A year later he would star in "The Alamo," directed by and co-starring John Wayne, and "BUtterfield 8" opposite Elizabeth Taylor (who would also win the Best Actress Oscar).

He is perfectly jittery and sleazy, with just enough sincerity when he needs it.

This was the first film to truly feature Brit pop sensation Cliff Richard. He made "Serious Charge" earlier in '59, but his role was small. Here, he is often treated as eye-candy, but shows a remarkable talent not just for singing but as a budding actor. He would go on to make a series of his own pop films, some of which were quite good. "Summer Holiday" is a particular treat.

There is a gay sensibility inherent in the film, not just because Richard is quite the sexy being and Harvey has his own appeal — we also have strong diva women. Strangely, Hermione Baddeley, who married Harvey and would later go on to TV fame as Mrs. Naugatauk on "Maude," appears in two brief, but memorable, scenes as a hooker. In "Room at the Top," she is also onscreen for a short time but still managed to snag an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress.

Interestingly, the thrice-married Harvey is said to have had serious relationships with men. Richard has fought gay rumors all his life, vehemently denying them despite being a lifelong bachelor and having lived with the same man for decades.

The BFI European Blu-ray includes a 1962 re-issue alternate cut of the film, some alternative sequences, an audio commentary by Guest and Donlan, and more. It's a shame none of these carry over — just a trailer.

"Expresso" Bongo" will be available on Blu-ray on January 18, 2022.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute