One of the daftest titles in British movie history (although personally I think Robert Hartford-Davis’ GONKS GO BEAT gets the No.1 spot - come on BFI, let’s see a Blu-ray of that one!) gets a cracking new whistles-and-bells Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of the BFI.
Sleazy, opportunistic Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) is an agent without a client, despite his pretty stripper girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms) wishing he would launch her on a more respectable singing career. Jackson discovers teenager Bert Rudge (Cliff! Richard) singing in a bar. Bert is only really interested in playing the bongos, but rechristened Bongo Herbert (let’s face it - you can’t complain about a movie with a title like that that features both bongo playing and a character with the name Bongo) Jackson soon has Bert singing his way up the hit parade. Of course, it all ends in tears with Bert ruthlessly exploited by Jackson, who dumps his client at the end of the film in favour of more profitable pastures.
A biting satire of the music industry, EXPRESSO BONGO was originally a stage show written by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More (who wrote the screenplay for INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED), with Mankowitz writing the screen version. Certainly the dialogue crackles and it’s pretty quick fire, too, expertly delivered by Laurence Harvey and the supporting cast.
EXPRESSO BONGO is also rather a strange film. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It veers between being very serious and being just plain bizarre. People break into song (there are quite a few musical numbers) but in terms of being an actual musical it’s more reminiscent of the weirdness of something like Menahem Golan’s THE APPLE. But as Cliff Richard movies go it’s nowhere near the light and jolly fluffiness of Peter Yates’ SUMMER HOLIDAY (1961) or Sidney J Furie’s THE YOUNG ONES (1961) and feels like a much more serious endeavour.
EXPRESSO BONGO was obviously a big influence on Julian Temple’s (vastly inferior) ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1985) but don’t let that put you off. It’s really rather special, and truly deserves the appellation ‘cult film’ (and not many do). As well as the above to enjoy / marvel at, there are guest turns by popular British character actors Burt Kwouk, Patrick Cargill (as ‘A Psychiatrist’), Kenneth Griffith (as the chap who pushes the strippers on stage in this one), Susan Hampshire (doing a fantastic upper class twit of the year before the term was invented), Esma Cannon as a cleaning lady and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz himself as a sandwich man displaying his own name.
The BFI’s DVD and Blu-ray gives us the uncut 111 minute version, and on the Blu-ray you also get an edited 1962 reissue version (106 minutes) with a Val Guest and Yolanda Donlan commentary track. On the DVD you just get the alternate scenes that were included in the 1962 version. There’s also a couple of short films - YOUTH CLUB from 1954 and THE SQUARE by Michael Winner from 1957, as well as trailers and a booklet containing essays on the film.
Apparently EXPRESSO BONGO has acquired something of a bad reputation over the years. I have to say I thought it was creative, original, well made, superbly written and acted, and an unexpected treat. It also made me sad that we don’t see such a degree of creativity in British movies nowadays. Now I’m off to buy some bongos so I can play along the next time I watch this.
The BFI are releasing Val Guest's EXPRESSO BONGO (oh I do love typing that title) on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016. Extremely groovy.