The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a very different group from the usual suspects in the popular and even experimental music scene. By combining disparate threads of musical heritages from around the globe, the group, led by Simon Jeffes, forged their own unique sound that was quite the eye-opener in the late 70's and early 80's. Their album covers also featured some distinctive art, most of which revolved around a lone penguin in the company of a woman (or women) with a human body and a penguin head.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes, who felt constrained by both classical music and rock and roll. He was drawn to the organic music of other cultures, but wanted to make something that was more identifiable as western. Then, after a night of sickness brought on by eating bad fish, Jeffes had a breakthrough: That spontaneity, randomness, and irrationality in life should be prized, and similarly in music. He then set about the task of creating such music: Whimsical and coy, serious and demanding, and always unexpected.
In 1988, Jeffes was approached by David Bintley, the resident choreographer for the British Royal Ballet. Bintley wanted to make a ballet based on several Penguin Cafe Orchestra selections. Jeffes selected and arranged the material, which was eventually performed by a full orchestra. The ballet was called Still Life At The Penguin Cafe and was very well received by critics at the time.
The main theme of the ballet is about conservation and environmentalism. Each musical number is accompanied by dancers with animal masks over their heads. Each one is meant to represent an endangered animal or culture. There is a little narration by Jeremy Irons about protecting animal species, and the ultimate fate of an endangered bird. The dancing and music begins as whimsically as fans of the group have come to expect, but ultimately turns more serious as the message becomes more clear. At ninety minutes, it does run a little long, but the music is always fascinating.
Available for the first time on DVD, Still Life At The Penguin Cafe was last pressed on laserdisc and VHS, and it looks like not much restoration work has been done since then. Presented in its original 4x3 aspect ratio, the image has scan lines and other defects of the older video technologies. Still, it was filmed on video (to my knowledge), and this is likely the best we're gonna get.
Presented in PCM stereo, the audio on Still Life At The Penguin Cafe isn't much better than the video. Again, owing to the limits of technology at the time, I'm not sure how much we could expect in terms of improvement, anyway.
We get one very good extra, a documentary simply entitled "The Penguin Cafe Orchestra." It's forty minutes of interviews with Jeffes and his collaborators, and includes several full length musical performances. Very entertaining and in many ways better than the ballet.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a unique proposition in the world of art music, and still is to this day. The band isn't well known, but this collection, which includes a ballet and a documentary, is both a good starting point for curious novices and a welcome addition to the libraries of longtime fans. The sound and picture isn't great, but I'd rather have this material in low quality than not have it at all. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.