Expresso Bongo (1959)

“You’ve got a chip on your shoulder and a H-bomb in your pants.”

British pop idol Cliff Richard stars in an early film role in Expresso Bongo–the story of a naïve young, talented lad who’s discovered by an unscrupulous agent (Laurence Harvey). Set in Britain in the late 50s, much of the film gravitates around the beat cafés springing up on the London scene.

Talent agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) lives off of the income of his patient, long-suffering stripper girlfriend, Maisie (Sylvia Sims) while he scours the dives, burlesque shows and cafes of London on the hunt for new talent. Jackson gets lucky one night when he hears the impromptu performance of young Herbert Rudge. While Herbert longs to play the bongos, his real talent is found in his Presleyesque crooning which drives the girls wild.

Jackson knows a good thing when he spots one, and so he decides to sign working class Herbert under exclusive contract at outrageous terms. Guileless and naïve Herbert doesn’t know any better, and soon he’s playing at gigs arranged by the pushy, exploitive Jackson.

With self-interest foremost on the agenda, Jackson tirelessly and unscrupulously promotes Herbert. There’s nothing he won’t sink to, and he eventually brings Herbert–now renamed Bongo Herbert–to the attention of Mayer (Meier Tzelniker) the head of Garrick records, and to a predatory, older American woman, “fabulous grafter” Dixie Collins (Yolande Dolan), who may or may not have Herbert’s best interests at heart.(“Much fancied film star stables unbroken street Arab.”)

Packed with lively witty dialogue Expresso Bongo really is a marvelous film, and it’s no wonder that Kino rereleased this crisp, clean print. On one level, the story, laced with humour and irony, explores the budding career of Herbert, but on another level, Herbert’s story is representative of any talent harnessed into show business. While it takes the slimy, streetwise Jackson to discover Herbert and promote him aggressively, it takes a bigger entity, possibly every bit as corrupt, to take Herbert to the next level of fame. Sub plots include Maisie’s tacky, talentless performances at a London burlesque show and her problematic relationship with Jackson. For fans of Cliff Richard and/or Laurence Harvey, Expresso Bongo is a lot of fun. On another note, some of the songs originally in the film are cut from this version. From director Val Guest.

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Filed under British, Music/Performance

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