Youth culture on screen

As I’ve noted, US film-makers made various attempts to represent – and indeed to ‘exploit’ – what they saw as the beatnik phenomenon. Several of these films displayed characteristics of a slightly earlier Hollywood cycle of juvenile delinquent (or ‘JD’) movies, which I’ve written about in another essay. Films like The Cool and the Crazy (1958), The Beat Generation and The Rebel Set (both 1959) offered salacious images of sex, drugs and crime, alongside implicit or explicit moral warnings about the dangers of such behaviour: they were intended to appeal to voyeuristic impulses on the part of adults, as well as to the growing cinema audience of young people themselves.

British films on the same theme are harder to find. All Night Long (1962), directed by Basil Dearden, is an updated version of Shakespeare’s Othello featuring a young Patrick McGoohan as an aspiring jazz drummer; while That Kind of Girl (also known as Teenage Tramp, 1963), directed by Gerry O’Hara, focuses on the risks of promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases. Both are set in London, and contain references to the youth culture of the time, but neither can really be called ‘youth’ films. However, in this section I want to look at two rather different films – both conveniently released in 1959 – that do have youth, and youth culture, as their central theme.


Expresso Bongo

Expresso Bongo is a satire on the contemporary music business. Written by Wolf Mankowitz and produced and directed by Val Guest, it was based on a successful West End musical that had been staged the previous year. The film tells the story of a talent agent named Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey) who attempts to revive his fortunes by taking on a new young rock-and-roll musician, Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard). He visits Bert’s family, who live in a run-down East End tenement, and persuades his parents to sign a contract on his behalf. Although Bert protests that he doesn’t want to become a star (he prefers playing the bongo drums to singing), Johnny transforms him into a teen idol, renaming him Bongo Herbert. Johnny’s wheeler-dealing secures him a TV appearance on a discussion programme about ‘teenage rebellion’, and then a recording contract: before long, Bongo Herbert is hitting the charts. However, Johnny’s efforts to control Bongo are eventually out-manipulated by his record label manager and by Dixie Collins (Yolande Donlan), an older American star who takes him under her wing. His ambitions thwarted, at the end of the film Johnny returns to his earlier passion of jazz drumming. The film is set in London’s Soho, amid strip clubs, brothels and salt beef bars; and Bongo Herbert is ‘discovered’ in a thinly veiled version of the famous Two I’s café.

On one level, Expresso Bongo is a vehicle for Cliff Richard (although his screen debut had already taken place earlier that year, in a British ‘JD’ film called Serious Charge). In some respects, the narrative re-enacts Cliff’s ‘discovery’, much in the manner of The Tommy Steele Story, a successful 1957 film that tracked the eponymous star’s rise to fame. Although the narrative centres on the Laurence Harvey character, Cliff gets to sing three songs and appears at one point in a shapely pair of swimming trunks. As K.J. Donnelly notes, the sequence of music in the film effectively prefigures his later career. His first song, ‘Love’, is delivered to a young audience in the coffee bar, and its wild beat is matched by some fast editing: notably, it is sung in an American accent. The second, ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ (which was the major hit) is a slow balled that is sung primarily to please older listeners, particularly the record label manager and the host of the TV show (Gilbert Harding, performing ‘as himself’). Finally, under Dixie’s tutelage, he is seen performing a cheesy dedication to his mother, ‘The Shrine on the Second Floor’ on a traditional stage variety show, accompanied by a choir. In both these latter cases, the songs are much more mainstream ‘Tin Pan Alley’ material, and the editing and visual composition are significantly more sedate and conventional. Through this sequence of songs, Bongo Herbert effectively makes the transition from youth culture to mainstream ‘show business’ – a transition that was replicated through the films that Cliff Richard himself made in the following few years. Although he was initially hailed as Britain’s answer to Elvis, any vague aura of youth cultural rebellion that might have been apparent at the outset was quickly dispelled as Cliff’s career progressed; and for the ensuing decades, he has been synonymous with wholesome family entertainment.

Expresso Bongo is a critique of the music industry, albeit a fairly mild one. Johnny is a likeable Cockney shyster character, who cynically builds the buzz of media interest: Bongo’s appearance as the representative ‘modern teenager’ on the TV show, alongside a psychiatrist and an archbishop, echoes a similar scene in Absolute Beginners, to be discussed below. Nevertheless, Johnny is eventually outsmarted by Gus Mayer, the more established record label manager (who largely conforms to a familiar Jewish stereotype). All Bongo really wants from his success is a red scooter (another echo of Absolute Beginners), but he gradually becomes uncomfortable with the way he is being manipulated: Dixie alerts him to the fact that he is getting a poor deal from his manager, and he complains that he is just something Johnny sells, ‘like rat poison or fish and chips’. Dixie rescues Bongo, by visiting his mother and pointing out that his contract is worthless (Bongo was ‘under age’ when it was signed); but she only does so in order to secure him for Gus and for her own show, with which she is seeking to revive her flagging fortunes. As this implies, the film largely takes an adult point of view: Johnny and the other adults make the running, while Bongo is merely the innocent victim. In this sense, it can seen to reflect some of the wider adult responses to the emerging youth culture of the time that I have already described.


Beat Girl

Released the same year, Beat Girl was marketed in the US as another ‘JD’ film, under the title Wild for Kicks. The theatrical trailer features scenes of wild dancing and sexy display, while the commentator intones as follows:

Wild for Kicks. The vivid and shocking portrayal of modern youth who grew up too soon and live it up too fast… The daring motion picture that takes you behind the scenes in a world where anything goes. A world of beat girls and defiant boys… It’s wild, wild, wild for kicks, a motion picture that will leave you breathless.

The trailer gives a very prominent place to a sequence from the film in which the young people have a car chase, and then lay their heads on the railway tracks in the path of an oncoming train, in a game of ‘chicken’, accompanied by some wild jazz on the soundtrack. And in case the reference wasn’t clear, a caption helpfully informs us that this is ‘the most exciting film of its kind since Rebel Without A Cause’.

However, Beat Girl is a rather less sensational film than its trailer implies. Unlike Expresso Bongo, or indeed Rebel Without a Cause, this is clearly a ‘B movie’ – that is, a low-budget independent production. Directed by Edmond Greville, with a ‘mod jazz’ soundtrack by John Barry, the film was delayed on release because the film censors objected to some scenes set in a strip-club, and to the ‘chicken’ sequence: an edited version was eventually granted an ‘X’ certificate.

The film focuses on a young art student named Jennifer Linden (Gillian Hills), the rebellious daughter of a celebrated and wealthy London architect, Paul (David Farrar). The film begins as Paul returns home with his new wife, a younger French woman called Nichole (Noelle Adam). Paul is keen that Jennifer should become good friends with Nichole, but she is cool and hostile towards her stepmother’s overtures. Jennifer is then seen sneaking out of the house to join her friends in the Off-Beat café, a Soho coffee bar: these include a singer (Adam Faith), who is clearly potential boyfriend material. Through various coincidences, Jennifer discovers that her new stepmother used to be an ‘exotic’ dancer, and (it is implied) a prostitute, in Paris; and she confirms this by meeting with Greta (Delphi Lawrence), a performer at a nearly strip club, who once knew her. When she has an argument with Nichole about staying out late, Jennifer threatens to reveal this information in order that her stepmother will ‘keep out of her life’. After a night out at Chiselhurst Caves (a fashionable but rather tame music venue on the outskirts of London), Jennifer and her friends engage in the various forms of ‘delinquent’ behaviour featured in the film trailer. This culminates in an impromptu party at Jennifer’s house, in which she starts to perform a strip tease dance before her father reappears and ejects what he calls the ‘jiving, driveling scum’. Despite her parents’ attempts to discipline her, Jennifer is drawn to revisit the strip club, where she is preyed upon by the sleazy owner, Kenny (Christopher Lee). As Kenny makes a pass at Jennifer, he is stabbed – and while Jennifer is briefly detained, it quickly emerges that the real culprit is Greta, who has killed him out of jealousy.

Beat Girl has gained a reputation as a ‘cult’ film, partly because it features early appearances by performers who later became much more famous (including the singer Adam Faith, Christopher Lee in a rare non-horror role, and Oliver Reed, who has a small part as one of Jennifer’s friends). However, its notoriety also derives from its self-conscious and rather heavy-handed portrayal of the generation gap, and of youth culture. There is some absurdly ‘cool’ lingo in the exchanges between Jennifer’s well-bred friends, much of it delivered in crisp upper-class English accents. After Dave performs one of his Eddie Cochrane-style songs, they chime in with lines like ‘he sends me, daddy-O, I’m over and out!’ and ‘straight from the fridge!’ Much of the dialogue is self-consciously smart and epigrammatic, laden with quotable lines: love, Jennifer suggests, is just ‘the gimmick that makes sex respectable’, while smoking is ‘the juvenile delinquent’s first vice’.

The rather wooden confrontations between Jennifer and her father are particularly notable in this respect:

Paul: I’m trying so hard to understand you.

Jennifer: You don’t really ever look at me, not really. None of you squares ever do. You see what you want to see – a group of teenagers lumped together under one label. But we are us, nothing to do with our parents. I am me, Jennifer Linden, a complete, whole, independent living person.

A little later, her father questions her use of fashionable language, and she responds:

Jennifer: It means us, something that’s ours. We didn’t get it from our parents. We can express ourselves, and they don’t know what we’re talking about. It makes us different.

Paul: Why do you need to feel so different?

Jennifer: It’s all we’ve got. Next week, voom, up goes the world in smoke. And what’s the score? Zero. Now, while it’s now, we live it up. Do everything, feel everything, strictly for kicks.

Jennifer’s comments are partly a generalized statement on behalf of all teenagers (‘us’), but they are also particular to her affluent, upper-middle-class upbringing. The family home is designed in an avant-garde modernist style, with sleek polished surfaces and floors, more like an art gallery than a family home. Jennifer’s father is obsessed with a modernist architectural fantasy called ‘City 2000’ that he is planning to build in South America – a city in which any noise will be eliminated by large concrete baffles, and people will be able to escape from each other. ‘Human neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans,’ he claims. To underline the point, Jennifer accuses him of being ‘dried up’, and argues that he doesn’t know the first thing about the people (‘us’) who will have to live in his new city.

As this implies, the film’s portrayal of the relations between the generations is highly self-conscious. In the scene in Chiselhurst Caves, Dave and another friend, Tony, offer a historical account of their seemingly confused position. Dave describes how he was born in the underground shelters during the Blitz, and later played on the bomb sites. Tony talks about how his mother was killed by a bomb, and how his father, an army General, told him to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not to cry – ‘it’s not manly’. In stereotypical fashion, both bemoan the fact that adults will never understand them, and that they are constantly being told they are too young. Meanwhile, in a later scene, Tony’s upper-class girlfriend Dodo (Shirley Anne Field) performs the sultry song ‘It’s legal’ – ‘think of the things that we can do without even breaking the law’. Although he seems to have working-class origins, and wears a leather jacket and a cool snarl, Dave is also far from threatening: he eschews alcohol, and (at the very end of the film) refuses to get into a fight with a group of Teddy Boys who have trashed his car. Such things, he suggests, are merely ‘kids’ stuff’, or ‘for squares’.

While Jennifer is the obvious point of identification throughout, she is also shown as rather spoilt, and not a little confused. On the one hand, she is an innocent child – and indeed, when her father accuses her of being ‘childish’, she responds ‘Why not? I am a child’. Yet she is also precariously teetering on the edge of adulthood. When her friends play ‘chicken’, she is the one who keeps her head on the railway line the longest; and later, at the party, she chooses to strip off to her underwear, with the clear intention of arousing the Adam Faith character but also of defying her stepmother (she frequently looks over her shoulder to her parents’ bedroom). She also chooses to return to the strip club, where the sleazy owner invites her to come with him to Paris in order to learn the art of stripping. While the strip-tease sequences provide some obvious fodder for what film theorists call ‘the male gaze’, it’s striking that some of them are intercut with large close-ups of Jennifer’s watching eyes: her fascination with the world of the strippers is clearly motivated by more than a desire to get revenge on her stepmother.

As in other films of the period, female delinquency in this context is principally about sex. As Janet Fink and Penny Tinkler point out, Jennifer’s ambiguous position here reflects a wider awareness of the threats and risks posed particularly to young women as a result of wider social changes – including the growth of commercial youth culture. Jennifer is from a ‘broken’ family (we do not know why her parents have divorced): her father laments that fact that he has been absent, and that they have not been a ‘complete unit’. She is also independently mobile in a range of potentially dangerous urban spaces, and well able to evade adult control. As a result, she finds herself in an awkward in-between space, trying to make sense of conflicting signals and imperatives: whether she appears as an innocent young girl or as a mature woman depends on how she is treated by adults, and by how she chooses to appear herself.

Predictably, order is restored at the end of the film. Bursting out of the club, Jennifer calls for her father, and is last seen going off arm-in-arm with him and her stepmother. Meanwhile, having walked away from his confrontation with the Teds, Dave drops his broken guitar in a waste bin and proclaims: ‘funny, only squares know where to go’. However, the re-imposition of adult authority is by no means as absolute or as disciplinarian as it is in other ‘JD’ films of the period: adults may offer a kind of wisdom, but most of them are flawed and damaged, and some are positively dangerous. Young people, it seems, will still have to find their own way.


Read more…