DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1987-1989)
Published on February 21, 2008
Documentary with founder Simon Jeffes, dir. by Andrew Harries
Ballet performance by The Royal Ballet, dir. by Keith Beckett & David Bintley
Musicians: Penguin Cafe Orchestra (octet) led by Simon Jeffes, guitars; Royal Opera House Orchestra/Isaiah Jackson cond.
Studio: ArtHaus Musik 102 133 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3 color
Audio: English PCM Stereo
No region code
Subtitles: German, French, Spanish
Length: 90 minutes
A bit late in the game, but a delightful opportunity to revisit one of the most imaginative crossover projects in recent music history. Classically-trained guitarist Jeffes – who passed away from a brain tumor in l997 – was living in Japan when he came up with the unique idea of a special imaginary place where people could assemble and enjoy the randomness of nature, all based on a global village type of music-making that completely ignored all categories and divisions. The Penguin Cafe band consisted of guitars, a classical cellist, a violin and viola, a piano, a ukulele and various percussion. Jeffes music for the octet was simple and very rhythmic – a mix of classical, jazz, pop, folk, ethno, minimalist and avantgarde. Jeffes had always been interested in new sounds, and he created one that was unlike all the rest, easily accessible to audiences, and sounding very old in some ways.
The documentary – made for British TV – has Jeffes talking about his music and starting the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, interspersed with performances by the octet in a visually-arresting setting – sometimes with smoke and special lighting effects. The ballet, which was reviewed as the most cheerful and amusing new ballet at Covent Garden, was titled Still Life at the Penguin Cafe. Jeffes arranged eight of his compositions for the Royal Opera House Orchestra, and they retain and flesh out the style of the originals without overwhelming them. The setting is a sort of dance cafe with penguins acting as waiters, and the human dancers pairing up with various extinct varieties of animals which the choreographers bring back to life. The costumes are most colorful and the dancing perfectly fits the bouncy Penguin Cafe music. Near the end the entire company dances a wild samba, which is drowned out by a heavy rain which brings Noah’s Ark into the final scene as refuge for all the animals. The stereo PCM track is clean and of high quality, and converts well to ProLogic II for surround effect.
The ballet would be a terrific family-viewing material provided your family is OK with the topless mother in the forest-dwelling family. Jeffes himself said The Penguin Cafe music catered to an audience which was “capable of enjoying Wilson Pickett, Beethoven, the Rolling Stones, choral music from West Africa, Stravinsky, Irish bagpipe music and even Abba on the odd occasion.”
- John Sunier