It’s 2016. In this age of endless stimulation: holographic 3D pornography, energy drinks most easily measured by the gigajoule, and where you’re never more than 20 feet from a hipster synth-pop band, what use could anyone possibly have for a 1959 Cliff Richard musical? On the surface, it’s a horrible prospect.
The expectation is this: there will be Cliff, swinging his hips and curling his lip in his best Elvis impersonation, and a stage act which may have been sexually terrifying to mums and dads and family pets in the ‘50s but now seems nothing more than lightly comical. He will be surrounded by 30-year-old teenagers, grinning and twisting, digging the crazy beat straight from the fridge!. There will be prematurely old kids, who in this music and dancing, suddenly find themselves being dragged backward from middle-age to this novel expression of young adulthood: a new form of youth which has only just become available to them, or to anyone in fact.
Fortunately, the Val Guest-directed Expresso Bongo (1959) offers little of this. There is Cliff, and there are pensionable teenagers, but at its core this gem of a movie is a rapier-like satire on the nascent music business and the corrosive nature of money and fame.
Laurence Harvey plays wannabe impresario and verbal machine gun Johnny Jackson. While hunting the Soho espresso bars for talent, he discovers Bert Rudge (Cliff), a teenage singer with soft skin, phenomenal hair, and a fairly unnatural love for the bongos. Oh, and ‘It’. Rudge has ‘It’, that indefinable nonsense star quality possessed these days only by TV talent show contestants and discernible only by TV talent show judges. Jackson takes young Rudge under his oily wing, renames him Bongo Herbert, and plots a course for the showbiz stratosphere. And while it seems incredible that anyone would ever get ripped off in the music business, not everything goes smoothly for the pair.
The satirical swipes which Expresso Bongo takes at the music industry are, at this point in time, well worn: Artists sign bad contracts, middlemen will wet their beaks at every opportunity, decency and loyalty are for the birds, and so on. It places Expresso Bongo in a genre alongside other classic showbiz satires such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). What is perhaps most fascinating about the world portrayed by Expresso Bongo though is how little the mainstream music industry has changed in nearly 60 years. The very age of Expresso Bongo highlights the longstanding intractability of the industry and adds to the caustic force of the film’s attack.
There are no two ways about it: The machinations of the mainstream music biz in 1959 are broadly the same as in 2016. Bongo signs a deal with his manager Jackson. Jackson goes to Mayer, a record company exec played by Meier Tzelniker, and demands a deal for his client. Mayer hums and haggles and eventually agrees. His company becomes a kind of indifferent, controlling nanny to Bongo. They will record, press, and promote X number of records with his name on them. They will be reimbursed in full for this — and take a little taste off the top. It would be rude not to. Do you see how far back poor Bongo already is on this chain?
In 2016, of course, if Bongo wanted to get his music out to the world, he could record it at home and upload it for the whole planet to hear in about five minutes. He could even set up his own label. There are innumerable ways Bongo could reach his audience without having to deal with a major record label. In 2016 Mayer would no longer function as a gatekeeper to the world. But if Bongo Beiber was determined to go down the route “offered” by a major record label, he would find himself still subject to the same restrictions on the production and distribution of his art as his great-great-grandfather did back in sepia-tinged Soho, and it goes without saying that the label would still insist on being fully reimbursed for all of it while taking a little taste off the top. That part has certainly not changed.
The modern mainstream music industry seeks to control both artists and audience, just as it did in 1959, wedging itself between the two and siphoning off whatever it can from both. Over the years, various independent labels, through their revolutionary approach to business, have shown this traditional model to be the greedy, unfair grift it is. And where indies and independent distribution networks rendered this model ridiculous, the digital age has left it a smoking wreck. And yet the majors persist. The mainstream music business, for whatever reason, continues to follow its ancient business model, one which bizarrely still assumes not only that it can control artist and audience, but in angry disdain for all common sense and raging oceans of evidence, that it is in fact needed at all by anyone.
If this makes Expresso Bongo sound more like a statement than entertainment, then don’t worry, it’s also quite a riot. The script is a barrage of one-liners and barbs, delivered with such precision and rapidity that this alone ensures that the film bears repeat viewing. Jackson gets most of the best lines. Walking his girlfriend Maise (the brilliant Sylvia Sims) home he notices that her coat is tatty:
“This fur isn’t too good either. When I make my first million…”
“Yes?!” interjects Maise expectantly.
“I’m gonna have it cleaned for you,” deadpans Jackson, struggling to take the final drag on the remains of his cigarette.
Even Cliff Richard is okay. If you don’t know who Cliff Richard is, well, he’s one of Britain’s most successful ever recording artists. One thing he is not, though, is an actor. He is an actor like Elvis was an actor. And he’s arguably not as good an actor as Elvis. However, his performance in Expresso Bongo is well judged. He lends Bongo a bland innocence: dough-faced and doe-eyed, but with the occasional hint that there may be darker currents swirling beneath that inscrutable surface.
The songs – for this is, after all, a musical – are brief and bearable; a mostly unnecessary remnant of the film’s stage origins. The best is probably Sylvia Sims’ decidedly acidic number alone in her flat during which she airs all manner of complaints about the errant Jackson.
If anything prevents Expresso Bongo from joining the top rank occupied by films such as the Sunset Boulevard and The Sweet Smell of Success, it is perhaps that it lacks the sense of scale and sweep of those two. Shot at Shepperton and on location in Soho, Expresso Bongo looks more than fine, but it doesn’t particularly convey the sense of a city and a wider backdrop in the way, for example, The Sweet Smell of Success places its audience amidst the chaos and bustle of New York, or Sunset Boulevard acutely presents the decaying grandeur of a very particular part of old Los Angeles.
That’s quite a selective quibble though and in no way should it overshadow the film’s many qualities. The traditional line is that Expresso Bongo the movie lacks the satirical edge of the original stage musical, but in truth the script is still gleefully spiky and more than snarky enough to satisfy the sourest of palates.
The new BFI release is a definitive vault-emptying exercise containing multiple versions, alternative scenes, the original trailer, and audio commentary. Most intriguing though is the inclusion of Michael Winner’s directorial debut, the short film The Square (1957). The promotional blurb describes it as “touching”. which it is. Considering that Winner was someone best known for directing largely terrible, overwhelmingly crass movies, you might also call it “surprising”. The film’s elderly protagonist finds himself struggling to come to terms with the effects of the changing times on the neighbourhood where he lives. It sounds a bit like Death Wish (1974) when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Much less murder though.