Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Expresso Bongo
(Val Guest, 1959)

“Y’know something Dixie? If I didn’t have my bongos to work it out on, I’d flip my lid!”

A modern viewer would be forgiven for not necessarily expecting to find a wealth of thrills n’ spills within a vehicle for none-more-sappy pretty boy Cliff Richard. But with British exploitation legend Val Guest at the controls, I’m guessing a lot of squares got plenty shook up when “Expresso Bongo” hit their daughters’ eyeballs back in ’59.

Before we get to the film proper though, I think it’s the least we can do to briefly salute the terrific credits sequence, wherein the names of cast & crew are cleverly incorporated into restaurants menus, jukeboxes, shop windows and the like. Imagine the effort they must have put into that pinball machine shot in an age before digital manipulation. That’s craftsmanship that is!

Anyway, with Cliff proving just as much of a wet blanket as a movie star as you might expect (he is actually upstaged by his own hair), “Expresso Bongo” is instead largely carried by Lawrence Harvey, fresh from his success in “Room At The Top” the same year. Harvey turns in a human-dynamo performance as unscrupulous hustler/manager Johnny Jackson, a disillusioned jazz drummer trying to make a buck off the music scene any way he can in the cruel environs of pre-Beatles Soho. Johnny is something of a Frankie Machine-like character, and, like Algren’s antihero before him, when Johnny moves, he moves like a street-punk, acting on wild impulses and dishing out hip non-sequitors thick and fast. “Get yourself a car, baby”, he advises a passing hooker, “love on wheels – it’s the only game in town!” At one point he gets in the phrase “beating those pagan skins”, a full five years before Wilfrid Bramble in “A Hard Day’s Night”!

As we follow Johnny through his nightly routine of crazy scams, Guest gives us a surprisingly candid tour of sordid West End nightlife, initiating us into a world of struggling club musicians eyeing up stockings in department store windows on their fag breaks, of down-and-out movie moguls hussling for change (“I was the one who introduced the bubblebath to show-business” yells one), and of teenage girls roaming free, carefully maintaining that post-war balance between innocence and experience, and seemingly with nothing better to do than bicker about how tall Dave Brubeck is (I LOOKED IT UP, HE’S 5’9”, NOW HOW ABOUT A DRINK FOR CHRISSAKE?).

Down-on-the-street as it may be though, “Expresso Bongo” still deviates from the realities of British pop management by making clear that Johnny is avowedly heterosexual. Furthermore, his main squeeze Maisie (Sylvia Syms) is an aspiring singer who pays the couple’s bills by working as stripper, providing Johnny (and Guest’s camera) with a happy excuse to take a butcher’s into one of those basement clubs where the nice boys and girls don’t venture.

And so get this – not only does the opening fifteen minutes of “Expresso Bongo” defy expectations by giving us swear words, wanton caffeine abuse and open references to prostitution… it’s actually got boobs!

And that’s not the half of it!

Jess Franco eat your heart out.

Never mind all that though; we’ve scarcely got time to catch our breath before Maisie drags Johnny along to the Tom Tom Club, where expresso-crazed kids are going wild to the sound of The Shadows!

I think it’s The Shadows anyway – they look like a bit of an uncharacteristically rough lot here, but the twangtastic sounds emanating from my TV speakers leave no doubt that that’s Hank Marvin himself wringing whammy bar gold from his Strat.


The band have a filthy Link Wray-style rumble goin’ on, and in fact this whole scene is freakin’ fantastic, until you-know-who sticks his oar in…

Cliff is a stone drag, but Johnny sees stardust in the highly organized system by which doting girls take charge of his bongos, keeping them constantly within reach of their hero as he roams free around the club, and a fateful 50/50 management deal is inked over breakfast the next morning.

“Nice shooting kid, reminds me of my two weeks in the guards!”

Clearly a big hype and a new stage-name is needed to bum rush Johnny’s new charge into the charts, and in a moment of pure inspiration, Bongo Herbert is born!

Yes, that’s right - Bongo Herbert.

Henceforth, I’m going to make sure I refer to Sir Cliff as ‘Bongo Herbert’ at every possible opportunity.

Anyway, a couple of additional scams pulled on Meier Tzelniker’s almost offensively Jewish Denmark St label boss gets Bongo onto wax, some equally scam-assisted TV appearances provide publicity, and hey presto, the kid’s a hit! (Not that he's outselling "Cha Cha Chinee" or anything, but hey, early days.)

I thought I’d share this shot of Johnny and Maisie’s West End pad, just because the film seems to encourage us to see it as a rat-hole, whereas I think it looks like paradise;

Christ almighty. America gave us Gene Vincent’s black glove, The Killer marrying his cousin, Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ and Big E himself. Only England could retaliate with Bongo Herbert in a smoking jacket, dedicating “Shrine On The Second Floor” to his mother.

“Bastards!”, exclaims Bongo’s senile father to no one in particular, like some prototype Father Jack. A welcome change of pace.

“Flash those Purleys, Bongo!” Johnny’s retirement fund looks less certain after Herbert is introduced to veteran American singer Dixie Collins (an enjoyably ballsy performance from Yolande Donlan). Dixie takes a shine to Bongo (and his ticket sales), and doesn’t think much of the underage star being taken for a neat 50% by his manager on grounds of highly dubious legality…

So do you think maybe Dixie, Bongo, Johnny and Maisie (who I note is STILL WORKING AS A STRIPPER, despite her boyfriend’s newfound riches) will all learn some tough lessons about the fickle whims of showbiz before this drama is through…? Only time (in this case about twenty minutes that are markedly less interesting than the preceding hour) will tell!

With a screenplay adapted by Wolf Mankovitz from his earlier stageplay, “Expresso Bongo” features a solid backbone of witty, quickfire dialogue, risqué situations and sturdy characterization, the like of which you’d never have expected to find in a cheap-shot pop star vehicle. Add great performances from everyone except Cliff, lively direction and all the additional attractions described above and clearly the result is a veritable rollercoater ride to the edge of oblivion by the excitement-starved standards of British commercial cinema in 1959.

For all the unexpected enjoyment though, there’s also something teeth-grindingly frustrating about “Expresso Bongo” – dark hints of the kind of routine disappointment that Val Guest would make his bread and butter in the dark days of the ‘70s sex comedy boom.

Largely, I think this is because it is a rock n’ roll movie almost completely devoid of rock n’ roll. Sure, the scene with The Shadows is great, but beyond that… Cliff/Bongo’s material is drippy fare indeed, and his on-screen presence carries about as much of a sense of rebellion as the Pope’s Christmas message. In fact, I don’t think anyone even dares invoke the R’n’R beast throughout the movie – characters talk about being “a singer” or working “in showbiz”, and disappointingly that’s exactly what they do. He even seems to lose his bongos after the opening club scene!

This being a 1959 movie in which delinquent teens hang out in coffee bars working out their frustration on those aforementioned pagan skins, you might also reasonably expect to find some choice beatnik action going on in “Expresso Bongo”, but that too is notable by its absence. Johnny may talk pretty hip on occasion, but sadly it’s just part of his constantly rolling patter, and there's nary a goateed hipster or a 'jazz' cigarette in sight.

In fact, the only subculture Val Guest manages to shine a light on here is, I’m guessing, the one he knew best – the seedy world of cutthroat managers, sex workers and low level showbiz hustlers.

Curiously, I found that “Expresso Bongo” also bears a certain comparison to a film whose maker’s intentions were the exact opposite of Guest’s easy-going commercial agenda, Peter Watkins’ Privilege. Both films centre on a carefully stage-managed pop singer who is denied his own voice as his bland good looks are used to channel the agenda of his controllers. And more notably, both films see their stars publicly declaring their religious faith as part of a mutual agreement with the Church of England… not an idea that I think has any real-life equivalent in the world of ‘50s/’60s British pop stars.

It’s also interesting (and faintly chilling) to note that Paul Jones – who in “Privilege” found himself overseeing a fascistic Christian ceremony in a football stadium – actually converted to Born Again Christianity during the ‘80s, following his attendance at an evangelical event in a football stadium… in the company of noted bible-basher Cliff Richard. Bongo Herbert strikes again.


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Steven Davies-Morris said...

An insightful review that pretty much nails it IMO.

Not enough proper rock 'n' roll, not really any cool Soho jazz and associate naughtiness though the seedy vibe is right. Certainly not enough of the marvelous Shadows and absolutely not enough stripping. I for one could have done with more of the lovely Miss Syms exposed on the big screen in crisp B&W.

It would have been very cool (in a gritty seedy way) if the ultra-calculating realist/perfect platinum goddess Dixie had taken advantage of Bongo sexually while using him to reignite her career. Maybe she did, but if so it's glossed over when "you want my help, kid? put out!" would have added to the films dark undercurrent.

Still, what we do get is not bad at all, and as far as it goes, "Expresso Bongo" tells a pretty convincing fast-paced tale of slimy hucksters of all sorts and how music "product" is made, packaged and and sold to "the kids". Or at least one stream-lined gooey version of the pop-star dream.

Had the third act been able to go over the edge and deliver on the promise of what came before this would be quite compelling. Instead -- lumbered as it is with the need to show more of Sir Cliff Bongo's wooden acting -- the end of the story undercuts most of the brilliance of the work put in by Harvey, Syms, and Donlan.

So call it an honest 3 stars and put it on the list of things to see when you want to look at music in the UK pre-Fab 4.

Anonymous said...

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