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Expresso Bongo

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    C.D. Workman
    Senior Member

  • Expresso Bongo



    Released by: BFI
    Released on: April 25, 2016
    Directed by: Val Guest
    Cast: Laurence Harvey, Sylvia Sims, Yolande Donlan, Cliff Richard, Eric Pohlmann, Hermione Baddely, Gilbert Harding
    Year: 1959

    The Movie:

    The musical genre known as rock and roll began sometime in the late 1940s; it took a number of influences—from rhythm and blues to gospel—and combined them into a unique new form. The exact date of the genre's birth is disputed, but by the early 1950s, it was distinct enough to be easily recognizable. The genre exploded in the United States, then quickly moved elsewhere around the world. It also influenced a number of low-budget films, rushed into production to capitalize on its success. Soon, movies such as Rock Around the Clock (1956), Don't Knock the Rock (1956), and Jailhouse Rock (1957) were filling movie theaters everywhere with kids willing to shell out money to see and hear their favorite musicians.

    Britain's youth were just as affected by this powerful new music as American kids were, and they, too, flocked to movie houses to see their idols perform on the big screen. In 1959, a West End stage play debuted; co-written by Wolf Mankowitz, it satirized the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the rock and roll industry. The following year, enterprising British producer/director Val Guest brought the play to the big screen, albeit with major changes to the music to emphasize the film's youthful star and to downplay the satirical emphasis (which was still there for anyone paying close attention). Guest had begun his film career in the 1930s as a writer of generic comedies but by the 1940s was directing as well. It wasn't until his flirtation with Hammer Horror (in fact, he directed the company's first major international success, the science fiction/horror hybrid The Quatermass Xperiment, in 1955) that he made a real name for himself. Guest brought to many of his dramas a documentary-style approach, wherein people talk over each other and at a manic pace reflecting real life; it's an approach that's often on display in Expresso Bongo.

    Cast as the leads in the film were Laurence Harvey, who would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Room at the Top (1959); musical heartthrob Cliff Richard, who had recorded Britain's first rock and roll hit, “Move It,” the year before; and Yolande Donlan, who had started out in bit parts in American films, including The Devil Bat (1940) before marrying director Guest and working closely with him in Great Britain.

    The film concerns a shady music promotor, Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey), who is always on the lookout for fresh faces. Before long, he comes upon a singing sensation, Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard), in a coffee shop. Realizing he can exploit the boy, he changes Bert's name to Bongo and introduces him to an older singer named Dixie (Yolande Donlan), who is intended to act as a mentor. He also signs Bert to a recording contract that assigns half of the boy's earnings to Jackson. Dixie develops a liking for Bert/Bongo and helps him break off his relationship with Jackson.

    The music was rewritten for the film to take advantage of Richard's success. As with his previous films, Guest's direction is snappy and sharp, just what viewers had come to expect, and the new numbers had a timelessness that makes them engaging even today. Richard gives a fairly flat performance, but his singing certainly can't be faulted, and really, that's the primary reason he was cast. He performs his numbers beautifully, as do the others in the cast who are tasked with singing. The remaining actors acquit themselves well, particularly Harvey and Donlan. But while Harvey went on to bigger and better things, including roles in The Alamo (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Donlan forever remained in her husband's shadow, though she wasn't starved for stage roles.

    Six months after recording his commentary for Expresso Bongo, Val Guest died from prostate cancer. Yolande Donlan survived another nine years, passing away in December 2014. Expresso Bongo may not be their masterpiece together, or Guest's masterpiece at all, but it's an appealing little film regardless, one that helps document the rock and roll craze of the 1950s in a way that music alone cannot.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The British Film Institute has released Expresso Bongo on both DVD and Blu-ray in a single set. The Blu-ray features an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080 high definition, while the film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. (The DVD was not provided to Rock! Shock! Pop! for review.) Two cuts of the film are provided: the original 1959 theatrical cut, which runs approximately 111 minutes in length; and a 1962 reissue cut, which runs 106 minutes in length. This latter cut was shorn of some of the songs, making it a less-than-ideal viewing experience as anything other than historical study. Though BFI has utilized a BD50 disc, the two cuts are presented using seamless branching, resulting in less space being utilized on the disc. This is a good thing, as there are some terrific extras that are also presented in hi-def. As for the film's image, it looks fantastic. As the box states, the film is “newly remastered in 2K” and it shows: Fine detail is phenomenal; the black and white imagery is crisp and beautiful, revealing every line in every frame. Black and gray levels are well modulated, and there's a great deal of depth. The image has been thoroughly cleaned without an excess of cumbersome DNR, and the only real dirt and debris appears in the opening credit sequence (and what a beautiful opening credit sequence it is, with nifty direction from Guest). There's a brief moment in chapter 6 where the image flickers slightly, but in general, Guest's frames are gorgeous. Even optical shots, such as one in which lovers are arguing over the phone and Guest employs a split-screen to show them simultaneously, look amazing. This is, without a doubt, one of the sharpest presentations of a b/w film this reviewer has ever seen, and it's doubtful that anyone who upgrades from previous home video releases will be disappointed.

    Expresso Bongo is a film that relies heavily on music and sound to tell its story, and we can report that the English LPCM 2.0 track is almost as nice as the video. There's no hiss or noise of any kind marring the track, and the dialogue and music are evenly balanced, so that there's no need to hold the remote as you watch the film. The songs sound very good, and there are a lot of catchy numbers to hold one's attention. Cliff Richard's voice is in top form, and BFI's presentation does it justice.

    The shorter alternative cut features audio commentary from producer/director Guest, actress Donlan, and film historian Marcus Hearn. The commentary was recorded in December 2005 for the British DVD release. Hearn acts as moderator, and both Guest and Donlan are spry and entertaining. Their memories are surprisingly strong, given just how long ago the film was shot, and they discuss everything from the shooting locations to the actors. Hearn knows exactly how to keep the conversation moving and on track, with no lapses or moments that seem wasted. He's also done his homework on the musical acts. It's a pleasing commentary, well worth a listen.

    Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are also included.

    There are a couple of remarkable extras that are almost worth the price of the disc alone. Let's start off with the least of these and work our way up. First off is an image gallery, which features various marketing materials for the film, from movie posters to lobby cards, as well as stills from the film and behind the scenes. There's also a theatrical trailer that runs approximately 3 minutes in length.

    There are two other major extras, both short films from the period. The first is Youth Club, directed by Norman Prouting and written and produced by Ronald H. Riley, from 1954; it runs approximately 17 minutes and concerns young people taking advantage of clubs aimed at providing them with educational leisure time to reduce juvenile delinquency. BFI clearly utilized a high-definition raw scan; the image is mostly very detailed with only minor crush; it contains a fair amount of dirt and debris and occasional scratches, though this is to be expected and may please some purists who want their films on Blu-ray to look like film. The soundtrack is presented in English LPCM 2.0 (though, weirdly, the display incorrectly states that the language is French).

    The second short is The Square from 1957. Long thought lost, it's the first film from director Michael Winner (Scorpio, 1973; Death Wish, 1974; The Sentinel, 1977). Recently discovered and given a nice scan in hi-def, the image looks similar to Youth Club. There's plenty of dirt, debris, scratches, and some flicker, yet detail is extremely strong and the image quite crisp. As for the film itself, it has to do with a day in the life of an old man in post-war Britain, one who has just received a letter than his home is to be demolished. There are only a few moments of synchronized sound—most of the film is narrated—but there are some skiffle interludes, making this the perfect accompaniment to Expresso Bongo.

    Rounding out the extras is a 30-page print booklet containing an essay about the film by Andrew Roberts; a review by Brenda Davies that first appeared in Monthly Film Bulletin in 1960; a list of film credits; an essay about Val Guest by Steve Chibnal, which was first published in Directors in British and Irish Cinema: A Reference Companion (BFI, 2006); and a list of extras with descriptions written by Vic Pratt, fiction curator at BFI National Archive. There are also technical descriptions and plenty of photos.

    Expresso Bongo is divided into 12 chapters.

    Expresso Bongo is a Region B release and will not play on most U.S. Blu-ray players, unless those players have been modified to be all-region or Region B.

    The Final Word:

    Expresso Bongo is a wonderful film, a look at a world more often seen through American eyes; the 2K transfer comes across as very sharp in 1080p, and the sound is also clean and pleasant. The British Film Institute has loaded the Blu-ray disc with some terrific extras, including Michael Winner's first film, a musical skiffle short. Now that the film is available on Blu-ray in such a sterling edition, fans can give up any old home video copy they may have. The definitive release is here.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Volume 2 of that series (covering the 1930s), is currently available, with Volume 1 (covering the silent era) due out later this year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!




















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