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Kino on Video presents
Expresso Bongo (1959)

Johnny: You strangled the old vocal chords very effectively, my boy.
Bert: Do what?
Johnny: The old tonsil caper.
Bert: Ah, that's nothing. It's the old drums I fancy. I got the rhythm kind of natural like. It comes natural.
Johnny: It's that golden voice you want to cultivate. Any schmuck can irritate those skins.

- Laurence Harvey, Cliff Richard

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: October 17, 2001

Stars: Laurence Harvey, Cliff Richard, Sylvia Syms
Other Stars: Yolande Donlan, Hermione Baddeley, Meier Tzelniker
Director: Val Guest

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief nudity)
Run Time: 01h:45m:48s
Release Date: November 06, 2001
UPC: 738329022921
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B BB-B- C+

DVD Review

One of the timeless and reliable cinematic chestnuts concerns the discovery of a young, unknown musician, and his meteoric but rocky rise to stardom. During the heyday of the young Elvis Presley, when imitation was the most blatant form of flattery, it seemed that every studio rushed to crank out a story of a big-haired street-crooner-turned-star. In 1959, hip British director Val Guest, the man who gave us the creepy sci-fi horror of The Quartermass Xperiment (1955) and The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961), took his shot at the genre, and the final product was Expresso Bongo.

Working from a chatty screenplay by sporadic collaborating partner Wolf Mankowitz, Guest's film is the story of Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey), a jive-talking manager-wannabe in the trendy SoHo district of 1959 London. Johnny is having a tough time making ends meet, despite the abundance of coffee shops full of unsigned talent. With all those crazy Brit teens and their "new" rock music, it's not long before Johnny locates the "next big thing," in the form of bongo-swatting singer Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard).

After christening his new protege with the somewhat clunky moniker of "Bongo" Herbert, Johnny proceeds to jumpstart both of their careers. As with any film of the genre, some expected—and unexpected—bumps arise along the way, and Guest manages to moves us along through the lives of the characters without turning Expresso Bongo into a completely predictable ride. By the time the aging, but sultry, songstress Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan) enters the film, near midpoint, it's clear that Guest and Mankowitz have managed to capture the fervor and energy of the so-called "Brit Beat" scene.

Laurence Harvey's (The Manchurian Candidate, The Alamo) Johnny is the focal point of this film. It is his speedy, caffeine-induced monologues that generate much of the entertainment value here, as he bounds from scheme to scheme, with dollar signs in his eyes. Harvey, not a comedic actor specifically, is completely charismatic and likeable here, and delivers his lines with a wonderful bitterness. Johnny's bickering, love/hate relationship with his wide-eyed stripper girlfriend Maise (Sylvia Syms) is reminiscent of the onscreen partnering of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Syms and Harvey are perfect together, and their endless back-and-forth banter is a treat to listen to. Fans of unusual songs should take note of Maise's Material Girl-ish strip club number early on in the film. It's a hoot.

Surprisingly, Cliff Richard almost takes a back seat to Laurence Harvey. Richard, who would go on to become one of Britain's all-time legendary pop stars, delivers a nice performance, and gets to belt out a few hip tunes, of course. His version of Shrine On The 2nd Floor, an ode to his working-class mother, is one of the oddities that make a film like Expresso Bongo that much more fun.

Guest manages to work the rags-to-riches story into something a step above what is typical of this type of film. While not on par with the chilling subject matter of The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Expresso Bongo is more lighthearted fare, and does have more than a handful of interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and all that groovy music, daddy-o.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Kino's 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer is sprinkled with sporadic spots, and some scratches, especially during reel changes. For a film from 1959, however, Guest's film looks fairly good overall. Expresso Bongo was originally filmed in Dyaliscope, which was a European version of Cinemascope. John Wilcox's black & white photography looks relatively sharp, with only some edge enhancement issues, primarily during shots of striped sweaters and the like.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Kino has not bothered to enhance the audio track, instead they have opted to present Guest's project in its original mono splendor. The general format limitations are present, but the rapid British dialogue is mostly easy to understand and very clear. At times some of the audio distorts a bit, especially during loud crowd sequences. I have no complaints with a good old-fashioned mono track, especially when it perfectly fits the tone of the film, as it does here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Excerpts from the original press book
Extras Review: Like many Kino titles, this one is rather sparse on bonus material. Aside from a thin 12 chapter stops, the only supplementals are onscreen excerpts from Expresso Bongo's original press book. This segment is broken down into eight sections, ranging from profiles on the main cast to a truncated stills gallery. Val Guest contributed a fine commentary to Anchor Bay's The Day The Earth Caught Fire, and I would have enjoyed his comments here.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Val Guest's Expresso Bongo is groovy fun. It's a very hip, funny tale, set in the "Brit Beat" scene of 1959, when the music scene was literally exploding. An excellent cast manages to spit out a batch of memorable performances, and the end result is a cool little time capsule from an extremely underrated director.


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