It may be night time but small time agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) is always on the lookout for a great way to make money, and tonight he is visiting a few of London's cafes and delicatessens to persuade them to hire not only a jukebox but a live act as well. After "borrowing" a copy of the music and variety newspapers from a nearby newsagent - he says he'll bring them back tomorrow - he drops in on a shop owner and manages to fool him into going along with one of his deals, then goes to visit his girlfriend Maisie (Sylvia Syms) who works as a showgirl in one of the city's less salubrious nightclubs. He knows that coffee bars are the future, but what he doesn't see in his own future is one Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard), a teenage singer and drummer who might just be the biggest thing to happen to Johnny...
Adapted from the successful play by Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More, with Mankowitz retained as screenwriter here, Expresso Bongo was considered quite daring in its day, with a bit of strong language and near nudity from the showgirls combined with a fast moving and deeply cynical plotline torn from the headlines (of the entertainment pages). This is the downside of showbiz, the side that everyone likes to hear stories about, where one star in the making leaves everyone who helped him behind, but always with the shadow of eventual failure looming up ahead as he falls out of fashion. Not that such a thing happened to Cliff, here making his second film after largely forgotten drama Serious Charge, as this film was yet another step on his road to conquering the summit of success.
The main character here is really Johnny, played by Harvey by heavily relying on a Jewish accent for some reason, and it's his seedy trail through the underbelly of the new pop music scene, which then must have seemed as if it would be a flash in the pan that would soon die out. And the picture it paints is probably somewhere near the truth, with a vivid sense of place from Johnny's dingy bedsit, the coffee bar decked out with fake palms and the recording label owner's lavish office where Johnny does a lot of wheelling and dealing, even getting Maisie to phone up while he is there pretending to be from HMV and asking for Bert Rudge, who Johnny, as his agent who takes fifty percent of his earnings, has rechristened Bongo Herbert (it's not exactly Billy Fury, is it?).
There is a smattering of musical numbers to show off Bongo's (and Cliff's, of course) singing talent, including real life hit "A Voice in the Wilderness", and The Shadows can be seen as his backing band. Johnny realises he needs a gimmick, and considering Bongo's poor relationship with his mother, he decides to emphasise the mother lovin' angle along with the religious angle for good measure, resulting in an amusingly bad taste stage performance in front of a choir, candles and stained glass windows. This is part of American talent Yolande Donlan's variety spectacular, and the story shifts to her taking Bongo under her wing, even as her popularity begins to wane. In truth, this second half loses the energy of the sparky Harvey and Syms double act and is overfamiliar in comparison with the first half, but as a time capsule of the early days of British rock 'n' roll and how it had its edge removed for mums and dads-friendly pop, Expresso Bongo holds the attention. After this, the now-inoffensive Cliff got as safe as safe could be. Music by Robert Farnon.