Expresso Bongo is one of those movies that makes a Significant (though not particularly original) Point at the expense of characterization, dialogue, and plot. Through a series of disturbing scenes, it shows how popular "artistes"--and more important the people connected with them--contemptuously denigrate the public's taste. If "mass values" are the problem, though, Expresso Bongo does little to improve them.
Early in the movie Lawrence Harvey, a talent agent who pushes strippers and rock and roll singers, reveals the truth to his ambitious but faithful mistress: "This is no playground, it's a jungle," (the camera focusses on his half-made bed), "and it eats up little girls like you" (a few minutes later he pounces). It also eats up poor young boys like his protege Bongo Herbert (Cliff Richards), overnight transformed from an ordinary lower-class teen-ager to England's hottest singer.
The camera rarely lets you forget that it's exposing a jungle. It weaves in and out among hip teen-agers, displays Soho as a dense underbrush, hides behind cars and then peeks out over them, clutters scenes with a variety of plants. Nor can you escape the animal screaming--the music, the noisy conversations, a few wild arguments.
Appearing on a filmed television documentary about teenage rebellion, Bongo gains the approval of A Minister (called just that on a panel program), and the adulation of British youth. His agent tries to tie the two together: "What does our act lack?--Religion;" Bongo treats a massive television audience to his second hit song, "The Madonna on the Second Floor." It is hard to avoid feeling nauseous when his mother turns out to be the Madonna, when you remember that, as the minister has said, "this will contribute to the pleasure of millions of little people."
Unfortunately, one feels even more disgusted at the absurdity of the plot, the shallowness of the characterizations. Lawrence Harvey's agent is the tough, glib guy with a tiny bit of feeling for his mistress. Success corrupts him, he forgets his woman, mistreats Bongo, recites lines that would be rejected by a third-rate television script writer. His mistress raises her voice only twice, and remains loyal to the end.
A secondary love-affair, between Bongo and a middle-aged American singer (Sylvia Sims), manages to show the shallowness of show business in general and the absurdity of this particular film. Miss Sims unwittingly gets Bongo drunk and later acts as both his mother and seducer; at the same time she wrenches his contract from the evil Harvey, plans a grand tour of the United States, and finally shouts at the unfortunate agent: "You get out of here or I'll have you thrown out."
It's good to see that people are still concerned about mass values, and no doubt Val Guest (who directed the movie) and Wolf Mankowitz (who wrote it) are serious in attempting to deal with an unquestionably important problem. But in Expresso Bongo they are caught in the same mire as their main characters.