2004, R, 90 min. Directed by Bob Smeaton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 1, 2004
It was the greatest rock & roll party you never heard of. The setting is 1970 on a train careening west for five days across the Canadian countryside. Among the locomotive’s passengers were Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, members of the Grateful Dead and the Band, Delaney and Bonnie, Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, and many, many more luminaries, backup musicians, and traveling companions. The Festival Express – dubbed the "million dollar bash" by Rolling Stone – was Canada’s answer to Woodstock and a precursor of Lollapalooza, a moveable feast that zoomed rock’s royalty across Canada to five different event cities where the participants decamped and did their thing before getting back on the train and doing it some more. The cars overflowed with the sound of music: artists collaborated, harmonized, listened, watched, and joined in with one another. Fueled by the prodigious amounts of alcohol that the train was equipped with by promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, there appeared to be no difference between day and night as the train hurtled forward on a major contact high. The scrappy footage of the rolling hootenanny contains so much amazing material. Filmed only a couple months before her death, Joplin is at the height of her powers here, and the film additionally treats us to a few of her stage performances. It’s incomparable stuff – and if you’ve ever wondered what made this no-holds-barred legend such a legend, Festival Express provides the opportunity to witness Joplin’s presence for yourself. There’s something of a mutual admiration society going on between Joplin and the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, whose versatility shows him strumming along with another rock, country, blues, or ad hoc singer to take the hospitality car’s stage. Scenes of Garcia picking away as Rick Danko of the Band improvises some mad lyrics while Joplin joins in the chorus will take your breath up short as you realize that none of these comets are still with us today. Buddy Guy describes being afraid to go to sleep at night for fear of missing something, and folk performer Sylvia Tyson is shown breaking out of her pigeonhole to sing some terrifically bluesy material. "What happened on the train carried over to the performances," she says. The story of how this document didn’t coalesce as a movie until nearly 35 years after the events occurred is a story in itself. (For Raoul Hernandez’s interview with director Bob Smeaton about the history of the film and assembling the footage, see this week’s Web Extras online.) As was typical of the time, the shows were bombarded by gatecrashers, protesting the $14 ticket prices and spouting rhetoric about how the music should belong to the people. Bob Weir of the Dead has a few wry comments for the protesters that he lobbed both in 1970 and in the recently conducted interviews that spot the documentary. Needless to say, the festival went bankrupt with its high overhead and low ticket sales – which had more than a little to do with the film footage taking so long to reach the screen. Yet Festival Express ranks right up there with the great concert/behind-the-scenes music movies. It captures a pure moment in time when musical hearts and minds beat as one, when musicians of all stripes came together to work and play hard and leave behind one damn fine-looking corpse. To quote Janis Joplin: "I don’t think we can quit now, man, really." (Smeaton interview.)