Let us imagine the pitch: a hotshot young writer and a director whose career spans groundbreaking horror, gritty drama and sexploitation decide to make a musical. But not just any musical – this would be a musical powered by stage performances, rather than the familiar contrivance of people bursting into song. It would also use songs by cutting-edge rock artists, and just for added spice it would take place in the world of burlesque dancing.
That, believe it or not, was the thought process that led to Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas making Showgirls. It’s also a fair description of Expresso Bongo, directed by Val Guest and adapted by Wolf Mankowitz from the stage musical he co-wrote with Julian More. While Expresso Bongo never had as poisonous a reputation as Showgirls, it still feels like the kind of film you have to prepare a briefing for the defence for. That’s largely because it’s most familiar from a 1962 re-release that stripped out a lot of the songs, rendered the burlesque scenes a lot tamer and refashioned it as more of a star vehicle for Cliff Richard. BFI Flipside’s new reissue offers the 1962 cut, but more importantly it has Guest’s full, original cut, which repositions it as a major, overlooked British musical.
The re-editing of the film is ironic on two levels; firstly, that the motor of the plot concerns Rudge’s increasing discomfort with the manipulation of his image and personality by his manager Johnny Jackson, played by Laurence Harvey. Secondly, the original movie had already been toned down a little from Mankowitz and More’s original musical, where Rudge – or Bongo Herbert, as Jackson unforgettably renames him – is more of an idiot, and the writers clearly have little affection for his music. Most notably, ‘The Shrine on the Second Floor’, a tribute to Rudge’s mother intended in the stage show as a merciless parody of showbiz sentimentality, is sung dead straight by Richard. Jackson’s subsequent idea for a mother-love concept album – “Oedipus Rocks!” – only makes him look more cynical for having misread Rudge’s evident sincerity.
And yet the movie still works. Mankowitz and More’s stage show was inspired by the media circus surrounding Britain’s first rock star Tommy Steele, and the distance between the thirtysomething writers and the teenage scene they’re satirising actually means Expresso Bongo is much less dated than the other late-50s British teenage film BFI Flipside released recently, Beat Girl. Whereas Beat Girl takes its teen rebellion and hep-cat slang painfully seriously, the use of Harvey’s Johnny Jackson as a viewpoint character allows Expresso Bongo to laugh at itself, while not sparing Mankowitz and Guest’s own generation from the satire. Jackson is, after all, a pretty venal character, particularly when compared to the softened version of Herbert Rudge played by Richard.
There are moments of Expresso Bongo that will strike rock fans as strangely prophetic; Jackson almost says Bongo Herbert is bigger than Jesus at some point, which sits particularly ill with his charge. It’s hard not to recall Richard’s real-life Christianity at that point, although there’s more racy material in here than you’d expect from a film starring Songs of Praise’s favourite rock star. One particular joke from Sylvia Sims, playing Jackson’s stripper girlfriend Masie, definitely wouldn’t make it into any later Richard vehicle. Tired of her partner neglecting to promote her career in favour of Bongo Herbert’s, she snaps “He can’t give you what I can!” Then, after a pause for thought, “I hope…”
But it’s hardly Richard’s fault the film was recut. Any distributor worth their salt would realise the insurmountable challenges of marketing a film towards teenage rock and roll fans that contained the number ‘Nausea’. Sung by Meier Tzleniker as Johnny’s business partner Meyer, it’s probably the best song in the film. It also exists solely to express Tzleniker’s character’s displeasure with Johnny’s new star. Hard to imagine the teenyboppers of the pre-Beatles era enjoying couplets like “Call this music? What a scandal/ In his grave is turning Handel”, but in Guest’s original cut it’s a pure hoot.
Meyer is Jewish, as was Mankowitz, and Laurence Harvey studied the writer’s voice to get Johnny’s cosmopolitan accent right. Bits of Harvey’s own South African accent occasionally slip through, contributing to the sense of an anthropological study underneath the movie’s brashly entertaining surface. There are more foreign and non-white characters than you would expect from a British film of the 1950s, including an early cameo for the late Burt Kwouk. Even before Swinging London there is a sense of Soho as the world’s playground, and Guest’s swooping, dollying camera shares his characters’ excitement. An experienced studio hand, Guest was at the mercy of trends in the British film industry: when things were going well, he directed The Quatermass Xperiment, when they weren’t, Confessions of a Window Cleaner. But this restoration of his original vision for Expresso Bongo reminds us what a great talent he was. The opening credits, an incredible pre-Steadicam flight through the Soho streets, is hugely impressive even today.
• Newly remastered in 2K and presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
• Full-length theatrical version (111 mins): DVD and Blu-ray premiere of the original long cut from 1959
• 1962 re-issue version (106 mins, Blu-ray exclusive): shorter alternative cut which removed a number of songs
• Audio commentary for the 1962 re-issue version featuring Val Guest, Yolande Donlan and film historian Marcus Hearn
• Alternative sequences from the 1962 cut (2 mins, DVD only): the scenes which we added to replace cut songs
• Expresso Bongo Gallery: a selection of promotional material, Including stills, theatrical posters and lobby cards
• Original theatrical trailer (3 mins)
• Youth Club (Norman Prouting, 1954, 17 mins): COI documentary about dealing with juvenile delinquency
• The Square (Michael Winner, 1957, 16 mins): Michael Winner’s touching debut, long-thought lost
• Original US and UK press books (downloadable PDF, DVD only)
• Illustrated booklet with new writing by Andrew Roberts and Vic Pratt and Steve Chibnalland full film credits.