We’re on the cusp of another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. More than three decades after the Turtles burst onto the scene, there’s something that still works about them. Tonight I’m taking a look at a “lesser” piece of turtles history. Their concert film.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out Of Their Shells is a concert film shot in August of 1990 at Radio City Music Hall. It follows the adventures of the turtles as they kick off a nationwide tour to spread the power of music, and the message of overcoming violence. I was too young, being 5 months old at the time, to go see the show live, but I definitely came into possession of the tape via Pizza Hut. Thankfully, my mom was a turtle-enabler from day one.
The film is generally regarded as the Worst Thing. The costume designs are ridiculous, the music bland and generic, and the plot so thin you can see through it. However, I have very distinct memories of loving the hell out of this tape when I was a kid. The Turtles were the hottest thing on the block when I was a kid, as they were for a few years before, and a few years after, and it seemed like they could do no wrong. I decided to revisit this tape and see if my memories were right, or if the world was. Near as I can tell, this is the only in depth breakdown of this bizarre 90 minute VHS tape from 1990.
Apologies in advance about these screencaps. These are grabs from a 26 year old VHS tape.
The film opens as many concert films open, with stylized shots of the roadies setting up the stage, and then, a voice tells us to welcome the turtles. The turtles are dressed in a bizarre blend of grunge and glam fashion and they take to the stage and give us the basic rundown of what they’re doing, letting us know that even though this music thing is new to them, they love it and are going to do their best. “The toys you get to play with are twice as fun as any weapon you could use”, says Raphael.
After this we’re treated to a backstage segment of the turtles communing with Splinter. Splinter is absolutely terrifying in this. He has the large deformed head of a Chuck E Cheese animatronic on the small body of what I assume is a human being. His tail is pretty dope though.
Splinter drops some cool zen koans like “Music can let you accomplish more than all the weapons in the world.”, and implores the turtles to “Practice. Practice well with the same focus that turned you into skilled ninjas and take your music to all who will listen.”
They then launch into their first song, appropriately titled Pizza Power. It’s about Pizza.
“Pizza. It gives us our strength. When we eat it, what do we get? Pizza power.”
Soon after the song begins we’re treated to our first bizarre vision, of breakdancing pizza men wearing Secret of the Ooze-esque costumes.
The turtles leading a chorus of hundreds of children in the chant of PIZZA POWER is strangely powerful.
They begin to chuck foam pizzas into the crowd. And my horrible collector brain begins wondering if I can find one on eBay. How much do you think a foam pizza from 1990 goes for on eBay at this point? The search proves fruitless, I am unable to find one. I am however able to find a cardboard standee used to promote the cassette tape of the soundtrack that sold 14 days ago for $800. I am always reminded there are people whose addictions are worse than mine.
After the end of Pizza Power, Splinter rises from a platform near the front of the stage and does a zen spoken word piece that eventually leads into a synthy song called “Skipping Stones”, his performance is interspersed with oddly somber black and white footage of children running, a man checking his pocket watch, and New York City life. His smoky, sexy deep voice strains as he belts out a soulful performance that’s absolutely bizarre to hear coming out of a 6 Foot tall man-rat. The turtles do Tai Chi behind him.
Suddenly, the turtles freeze in tableau as a distorted voice fills the auditorium and Baxter runs out to the stage. The distorted voice it turns out is Shredder. Baxter has invented “the ultimate ninja weapon” and has frozen the turtles in time. As he and Baxter go back and forth, it’s revealed that Shredder…HATES MUSIC. And Krang (who I desperately wish was in this, but alas) has brought him a weapon from Dimension X, the Deharmonic Convergence Controller which will allow him to suck all music out of the world. He assures the audience that this will destroy all that is good and decent in the world and leave them his mindless slaves. This is getting pretty heavy for a anthromorphic turtle concert, but the show goes on.
The stage is flooded with Foot Clan ninjas. They’re wearing military outfits that are vaguely reminiscent of the Foot costumes in the first film, as though they were designed by someone who had seen the movie once and was trying to explain what they looked like to a blind costume designer. Then Shredder dismisses the Foot soldiers and the tail end (get it?) of Splinter’s song continues as the disoriented turtles and Splinter stumble around the stage.
Leonardo brings Splinter his cane and they ask the audience if anyone knows what happened. The tiny children implore their green gods to acknowledge their voices. It was Shredder! Shredder they yell!
Out of the crowd, April O’Neal emerges to reinforce the children’s point. “He’s here now and he’s going to destroy the world”, but she is dismissed out of hand. You see, it is revealed that Donatello has built a “Shred-Scan” into his synth in order to detect Shredder’s presence. This is baffling and is not explained at all. Raphael and the gang explain they’re not afraid of Shredder because they have all of their friends are here to help them. They ask if the audience wants to hear another song. Obviously they do, I mean, their parents paid to see this show at Radio City Music Hall, so they’re presumably pretty die hard shellheads. Leonardo begins rallying the audience, preparing to launch into the next song.
“So if some bad guys or bullies like Shredder step in your way and want you to walk to their way of thinking, you gotta keep your head clear and cool.”, they inform us the only way to step to a bad guy with a twisted heart, or anyone else who wants you to do something you don’t want to do is to go straight at em and be yourself. “That’s as straight up as it gets”
This leads into Raphaels big song, “Walk Straight”. This song was definitely my favorite when I was a kid. It also has inexplicable dancing army men, so that’s a plus. And a lot of overtly sexual turtle hip gyration which I definitely didn’t notice as a child.
The final stanza is as follows, and it spoke to me as a 4 year old.
The turtles then attempt to lead the crowd in a sing along. It’s hard to tell, but it doesn’t sound like it went very well. There are a lot of spinning nunchaku in the crowd during this song, so maybe it resonated with them as fully as it did for me. I’m gonna come out and say it, as of right now, this is the best song in this show.
Then we’re informed it’s time for some real rock and roll and Raphael plays a Chuck Berry style guitar riff. It’s time for “Tubin’”, a synth surf rock anthem about skateboarding interspersed with old stock Footage of surfers. There also appears to be some sort of…luau rats, or alligators maybe. Either way they’re wearing hula skirts. They emerge from the edge of the stage, and then are shortly thereafter joined by the same two dancers that have been thus far been pizza men and army men. Now they are surfers wearing mining helmets and rollerblades while carrying a surfboard, I assume all of this is meant to tie in with the refrain “Surfin’ Subterranean”.
Then Michelangelo starts rapping…
Immediately after this song wraps we’re treated to a pretty funny Jeopardy parody referred to as Turtle Lingo. The question: “A turtle’s favorite word would be this.” “The answer is cowabunga, you moron.” Good stuff. Good stuff.
April appears on the screen in a small corner box and implores the turtles to take the Shredder threat seriously. She is mysteriously cut off, and then Michelangelo starts rapping a different song. A lot of rapping turtles in 1990. The song is, of course, called “Cowabunga”. The lyrics are presented in their entirety below for all time, another testament to the rapping turtles of 1990:
This rap is definitely intended to have a Beastie Boys sound, though, so it’s much more bearable. Until Donatello starts gyrating in a pretty upsetting way, at least. He’s always gyrating in this. All the time. Donatello is the sexy turtle.
The turtles freeze again. Baxter comes out and he’s singing “Cowabunga”, mockingly. Baxter’s a dick. Shredder appears in a green box on the side of the screen and says he has never liked rap music but has always enjoyed stopping it. He then calls the audience foolish for clapping along to the sound of silence. The two Foot ninjas come back out and rig the deharmonic thing, so that when the turtles play their next song a vacuum will be formed and suck all music and joy out of the world. I distinctly remember this sequence being absolutely terrifying when I first saw it.
After this, Michelangelo does a pretty passable Sinatra impression, then a very decent Elvis impression. April implores the turtles to look out as the stage (read: camera) begins to shake The Foot ninjas return and circle the turtles who begin talking mad smack at them. Even though they’ve transcended violence, Donatello and Raphael begin whooping their asses. But one of the ninjas is able to kidnap April, and Shredder makes his first on stage appearance to a screaming chorus of hundreds of frightened and angry children who are attempting to warn the turtles that Shredder is behind them.
They do not notice Shredder, or his maniacal laughter. It isn’t until he directly addresses them and fireworks go off around him as he is lowered to the ground via the deharmonic convergence controller. It also apparently has the ability to sap the turtle’s energy from them, and they are forced to retreat below the stage through a series of tubes.
Shredder has a brilliant monologue about how the turtles are finally showing their true colors, yellow instead of green. As he insists they are cowards, the crowd jeers and boos. Shredder is a grade A heel. He reiterates that he’s going to suck all the music and joy from the world and he doesn’t need “snotty nosed little brats watching him”, and that they’re all “too small to be slaves” but that won’t stop him. Shredder menaces at April and lands a few jokes before banishing her from the stage and turning his attention to the audience. He announces that he’s locked all the doors and that no one can leave.
The crowd goes absolutely insane. They start chanting and screaming, and you can see them waving their nunchucks and their little light up swords, ready for a fight to protect their turtles. This little dude looks like he’s ready to climb up there and fight Shredder himself. That’s maybe the most important thing about the turtles, that sense of strength they seem to give kids. I love this little dude. He’s ready to fight to protect his heroes. This show is completely ridiculous, but I guarantee this little guy probably still remembers having an awesome time.
The tape then cuts to a reporter (Skip? We’re gonna call him Skip.) whose interviewing children from the audience. He is absolutely losing it because Shredder has shut down the show and kidnapped April. He asks the children how they should help them. Skip finds a child who knows the way to the sewer. He implores the crowd of children to give him something to protect himself. Someone hands him a light up sword like the ones the children in the crowd have been waving.
This section of the tape is pretty much exactly like a found footage movie. He’s wandering the darkened under belly of the Radio City Music Hall and he finds himself lost. He begins to freak out more, his voice cracks and he begins attacking some wires he mistakes for a snake. He begins repeating that someone else should be down here. We cut to the turtles attempting to come up with a strategy before they are interrupted by our intrepid reporter. They exchange information, and the general tone is one of hopelessness. “We can’t stand in front of it because it makes us weak?” “I’m just trying to figure out something because if you turtles can’t do it, no one can”, Skip cries. They reiterate the plot, that Shredder is going to steal all music and Michelangelo interjects that it will likely be all music with the possible exception of the Barry Manilow catalog. Even under extreme stress, Michelangelo got jokes, son.
There’s a basic rundown of the overall plot of Splinter and Hamato Yoshi, and then they reinforce the fact that if Shredder can’t be stopped he is going to enslave the children. A nice little plug for the nationwide tour, 40 cities as Michelangelo is quick to state, but if there’s no music it’d probably be a shitty tour.
Donatello is working on some sort of cloaking device to allow them to get in front of the machine without having their strength sapped. They convince the reporter to go hunt for Shredder, and leave his camera with them. They will communicate via the camera. The turtles implore the children to keep the faith and believe them when they say they’ll be back.
The next shot is of a large gauge that is currently stuck in the middle “Really Bad”. The other options are Bad and Totally Uncool. The crowd is going wild, chanting Turtles! Turtles! Turtles! Instead of the turtles, Shredder storms the stage flanked by Foot ninjas who are tying up April.
“It hurts so good” Shredder informs the audience; they continue to jeer. “Did you pay for those seats? Then sit in em!” Various children are now screaming and shouting at Shredder. He begins to single them out and ridicule them. Shredder is basically doing crowd work.
“What planet did you just fly in from?” “I think I’ve seen your face on a milk carton recently” Then I’m pretty sure he hits on a kids mom? “Is that your mom? How would you like a one-way ticket to my technodrome?” I’m a good 90% sure that’s Shredder inviting this kid’s mom back to his subterranean battle station to bang.
“This is live entertainment, get involved!” The children begin chanting even louder. Turtles! Turtles! Turtles! The Foot ninjas are armed with confetti cannons.
As they boo him, he lets them know “I feel the same about you, you know. You think I like this?” My stance is that this may be the actor playing Shredder breaking the fourth wall and expressing his real feelings.
Also onstage during these goings on are two people who I assume are cameramen, but they’re definitely the backup dancers who’ve now played army men, rollerblading surf miners, and pizza delivery men. Shredder explains how the deharmonic convergence controller works, more or less and his sentences are punctuated by Foot ninjas firing off the confetti cannons.
Shredder begins a song, called “I Hate Music”. I’m going to reiterate that, a song called “I Hate Music”.
He raps while Foot ninjas breakdance around him. I take it back. This is my favorite song on this. I take it back, this show isn’t ridiculous at all this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
“Does anyone want a New Kids On The Block album? I hear they’re breaking up” Shredder shouts as he chucks albums into the garbage. April begins booing him as he explains that he has trapped all of the turtles’ music in an orb. He then shoots the orb with a laser? It’s not abundantly clear what happens. There’s an explosion though. April spots the reported, Skip and begs him to come help her. Shredder then electrocutes him. He isn’t seen again, so I’m going to assume the cowardly Skip was murdered.
The turtles appear on screen, and have undergone a pretty dramatic costume change finally appearing more like the turtles of old. With like…weird glitter appliques on their eyes. (I wasn’t able to grab a good picture of this, but the costumes they’re wearing in this segment appear on the Making Of VHS cover above.) Shredder sends Baxter to hunt for the turtles and goes and hunts for the turtles themselves. The other reporters are freaking out at this point, accusing the turtles of being wienies. April can’t stand for this. She asks the audience if the turtles are wienies. Of course the children don’t think they’re wienies. She reveals that the turtles taught her a song that helps you not to be so afraid. Then she sings it. The song is bizarrely applicable to the current situation. I guess this sort of thing does happen to her a lot.
Then, the turtles and Splinter begin rising from the stage. They hesitate to leave their tubes, deciding if just for a moment to enjoy April’s ballad, because if they don’t win, they may never hear music again. Kinda touching, honestly. The song continues for a little longer, and April kills it or kills it as much as anyone could during a pay per view performance of a children’s musical stage show about anthromorphic turtles who are, and also fight, ninjas. The song lives up to the name on the album, April’s Ballad. Complete with squealing guitar and diva riffing as she extolls her love of the turtles. Splinter has an epiphany as he watches the deharmonic convergence controller grow dark during April’s performance. They retreat once again back into the stage, assuring the children they will be back and that the young ninjas should remain strong.
Shredder returns and he is straight up pissed that April was singing. He’s about to do it, man. He’s going to get rid of all music. He clarifies that this does in fact include Barry Manilow. Shredder with the sick callbacks. Shredder is a grade a stand up comedian, y’all.
“This one’s for you! Have a nice weekend in New England! You write the songs that make the whole world puke!”
“You’ll never get away with this you big ginsui clone!” April cries! Then he does it, he steals her voice using the deharmonic convergence controller along with all music in the world. The video then cuts to a reporter live on the streets of New York City, reporting that confusion is flooding the city as the sound of all music has vanished. There is a confused man shaking a guitar behind him. Beautiful. Then it cuts to a reporter in California reporting that birds have stopped singing. Then to Chester Ashworth, a music industry executive / nerd who informs us that all music has left elevators and super markets. He cries. It’s great.
Baxter appears to remind Shredder that the turtles are still out there. Shredder reassures Baxter all will be well, and Baxter does his trademark squeal laugh. Pretty good capture of that character, honestly.
Then, the turtles erupt from the ground wearing shields created by Donatello to protect them from the machine. Donatello explains that he rearranged the molecular magnetic strip on the back of their American Express card and in unison the turtles turn to the audience and extol them to not leave home without it. Splinter shakes his head, as do I. They attempt to communicate with April, but as we know she is now mute. The audience isn’t and they try to let them in on the secret. They then play charades in an attempt to communicate. It doesn’t go that well. Weirdly, the Boston Strangler gets a namedrop. Splinter immediately grasps the situation.
They grow even more despondent about the whole situation, and Splinter notices the gauge drop from Really Bad to Totally Uncool. The problem is that they’ve lost sight of their true selves, he informs them. They’ve lost faith in the music. They then find a guitar and begin a song, presumably able to do so due to the shields they’re wearing protecting them from the machine’s music sapping ability. The song they launch into is a super jaunty and generic rock track called “No Treaties”, presumably indicating they will not be signing a peace treaty with Shredder after they have defeated him. Pretty bad foreign policy, in my opinion, guys.
The song ends with a sick solo from Michelangelo, and the turtles learn that their song has had no effect. “Just as the machine cannot affect you inside of your shields, you cannot affect the machine.”, explains Splinter. Alright.
The turtles begin to fight among themselves and the gauge dips even farther down. It seems the machine’s evil is penetrating their shields and that is making them fight themselves instead of Shredder. “Follow your heart.”, implores Splinter. Then Raphael begins singing a very soulful acapella R&B track called “Follow Your Heart”, which isn’t on the official soundtrack. The turtles are all very moved, as I’m sure 4-year-old Nathan was. The crowd goes wild.
“Together we can defeat him!” cries Splinter. If they can bring the audiences voices together, they can overpower the machine and stop Shredder. The turtles begin teaching the audience the lyrics to the next song, “Count On Us”. “Remember brave ninjas, wait for our signal!” cry the turtles as they vanish from the stage. Shredder reappears and informs the children he’s going to steal their voices.
The turtles are backstage, again in completely different costumes than what they were wearing 30 seconds ago. They taunt Shredder, and then give the signal. They begin singing, as does the audience. Shredder tries his hardest to stop them, but he is unable to do so. The turtles implore the audience to keep singing, and the machine begins going haywire. Shredder calls his Foot ninjas back to the stage and they uh, they breakdance fight. All the while, the turtles continue to lead the children in song. Donatello plays bongos on Shredders head. It’s pretty Avant garde theater, really. Even though they have transcended violence, they still have to use violence to save the day in the end. Powerful stuff. Powerful stuff.
Shredder admits defeat, but he has an escape pod! He enters the pod, but they’ve unplugged the extension cord powering the teleportation pod and then somehow wire it into the deharmonic convergence controller. This causes Shredder to be teleported into some sort of dark shadow realm. I assume it’s meant to be Dimension X, but it’s not explained at all.
“Let’s rock and roll!” shouts April, and the turtles start up playing a full band version of “Count On Us”. The camera pans to the audience throughout this number to show tons of incredibly happy and relieved children dancing in the aisles holding inflatable instruments and ninja weapons. It’s honestly pretty great to see this level of enthusiasm for the turtles. The relief and joy on their little faces is palpable.
“There’s no need to be afraid, you can count on us.” They can, man. Those kids really can. And they still can 32 years later. Hell, those kids in the audience probably have kids at this point and I bet those kids love the turtles too.
The video comes to a close with a refrain of “Pizza Power” as the credits roll. In the end, they of saved the day and in the process saved music for all of humanity. So if you enjoy music, you have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to thank, because without them music would have been sapped from the universe in 1990.
I have to say, this is a pretty damn absurd and ridiculous slice of 1990 to watch, but its oddly charming in its low budget earnestness. I definitely enjoyed it when I was a kid and as an adult it definitely crosses into that so-bad-its-good territory we always hear so much about. As dumb as this tape is, and it is pretty dumb, it’s also a lot of fun. There’s something magical about watching it and being able to look at all those early 90s faces and identify with them. I was cheering along with the turtles when I watched it. I memorized all the ridiculous lyrics. This is not a classic, it’s not even in the top 10 turtles VHS tapes I still have laying around, but it was a serious nostalgia trip and I’m glad I took it tonight.
BONUS: Here’s an Oprah episode from 1990 where all she does is interview the turtles, as though you needed a reminder of how thoroughly they had invaded pop culture by that point.