Expresso Bongo (1959)
Cliff Shows of his Bongos
"Expresso Bongo" is billed as Cliff Richard's first starring role and to be honest he does more in the movie than what he did in his previous and first movie "Serious Charge". But in reality "Expresso Bongo" belongs to Laurence Harvey as the seedy, entrepreneurial showbiz agent who spots a chance and capitalizes on it, or should that be uses it. But "Expresso Bongo" is more than just a movie which showcases the talent of Laurence Harvey it is supposed to be a semi amusing exposé of the seedier side of showbiz. I say supposed to be as whilst what we watch is the manipulative behind the scenes world of showbiz it doesn't have the punch, the going for the jugular satire which would have made it memorable. Because of this watching "Expresso Bongo" now is an entertaining yet less than memorable experience.
After picking up his girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms - Shirley Valentine) from the Soho strip joint where she works, seedy talent agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) heads to a night spot where he spots Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard - The Young Ones) a bongo player with a singing voice to die for. Spotting an opportunity he signs the underage Bert up on a 50/50 contract and starts touting him around as Bongo Herbert. When Bongo is befriended by big star Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan) it soon appears that everyone wants a piece of the Bongo action.
There is an undeniable sense of irony watching "Expresso Bongo" because of the fact it stars Cliff Richard who is often referred to as the British Elvis Presley. I say irony because Elvis's 2nd movie was "Loving You" about a talented young delivery boy who is discovered by an agent who tries to capitalize on him and here we have Cliff Richard in his 2nd movie playing a talented young man who is discovered by an agent who tries to capitalize on him. The irony stops there because "Expresso Bongo" is not just a British version of "Loving You"; it is in fact a sort of exposé of the seedy world of showbiz in Britain. We are taken behind the scenes and the wheeling dealings of agent's, producers and stars past their best all delivered with a touch of satire. As such it is quite amusing as we watch Johnny fast talk his way into deals, while producer Mayer tries to grab a slice of the action himself and fading star Dixie Collins trying to manipulate the young Bongo Herbert for her own purposes.
But the thing is that whilst "Expresso Bongo" has an overall sense of amusement as it delves into the dodgy dealings it seems to lack an almost killer instinct. It's all a little too safe, villains are not really nasty, the satire isn't waspish enough and it's as if anything in the slightest bit derogatory is fudged over. Even scenes in Soho strip joints during the early scenes all seem a little too safe although it's kind of perversely amusing to think that Cliff Richard starred in a movie which featured strip joints.
But whilst watching "Expresso Bongo" now highlights the issues within the production it does still end up quite entertaining. Most of the entertainment comes not from Cliff Richard but Laurence Harvey who as wheeler dealer agent Johnny Jackson is central to all of the grubby goings on. There is almost an element of Arthur Dailey about Johnny, a bit fly by night with the gift of the gab to talk himself into and out of any situation and as such Laurence Harvey delivers in every single scene. It's almost a mesmerising performance from Harvey not because of how he looks or acts but in the quick fire delivery of the dialogue just grabs your attention.
So strong is Harvey's performance that to be honest other than looking nice and singing a few songs Cliff Richard goes by a bit unnoticed. Actually that's a lie, Cliff actually acts in various scenes and has a talent for drama although is a little bit too amateur dramatic for my liking. Aside from Harvey and Richard "Expresso Bongo" does have some nice performances most notably from a vibrant Sylvia Syms as wannabe starlet Maisie and Yolande Donlan delivers a wonderfully comical performance as Dixie Collins who tries to manipulate Bongo to help prolong her career.
What this all boils down to is that "Expresso Bongo" is an entertaining movie but not an overly memorable one. For a movie which is meant to explore the seedy world of British showbiz it all feels a little too restrained even for when it was released. But the performance of Laurence Harvey as seedy agent Johnny makes it worth watching and for those who like a youthful Cliff Richard will not be disappointed either as he sings as well as acts.
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