The Scenic Route
Bob Smeaton on 'Festival Express'
From the Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" easing that train out of Toronto in 1970 to the closing sequence of the Band's Richard Manuel bleeding "I Shall Be Released" and Janis Joplin crying, pleading, hollering "Tell Mama," Festival Express rides a scenic rail to rock & roll's holy land. "Unforgettable" describes one of this documentary's central scenes: Joplin, Manuel's Band-mate Rick Danko, and Dead guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir drunkenly jamming aboard the steel wheels taking them across a trio of Canadian festival cities along with Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, and Ian & Sylvia (Tyson), among others.
"Some people watch that scene with Janis, Rick, and Jerry and think, 'Oh, what a great time! What party animals, they're so full of life,'" acknowledges the film's director Bob Smeaton from his native UK. "Others say, 'I think it's sad. If they weren't imbibing like they were on that train, maybe they would have lasted a bit longer.'
"Who's to say? It's history now."
History that only began resurfacing in the last decade when Eddie Kramer rang up Smeaton, with whom he collaborated on the Grammy-winning Jimi Hendrix DVD Band of Gypsys. A colleague of the legendary music producer had unearthed long cobwebbed 16mm footage of a five-day musical odyssey enlisting an equally celebrated band of gypsies. There remained only the small matter of sifting through 50 hours of negative, 70 hours of audio, and raising $1 million for music clearances alone. Twenty hours whittled down to 13 with matching visuals ("with Manuel's vocal, I prayed there was footage to match"), then three hours. At a final 88 minutes, Festival Express is as streamlined as the Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," which clocks in at about 10% of it's original 30-minute run time.
"There were so many strong performances," sighs Smeaton, who's already assembled the bonus-laden Festival Express DVD. "I was getting, 'Oh, let's make it two hours,' but I didn't want that. Like the new Metallica movie, it's two and a half hours long, and, you know, I like Metallica, and I think it's a good movie, but it's just too long.
"When people go to the cinema, for a movie like this, their attention span isn't like Lord of the Rings or The Godfather. It's a fairly thin story. I wanted it to be like Monterey Pop, which is 80 minutes, and for it to look like it was put together in 1970.
"After I finished the Beatles Anthology, I thought, 'Well, you can't top that. Maybe you should just retire,' but I didn't believe in retiring in my mid-30s. I'd always wanted to do a movie like Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, or Isle of Wight, so when Festival Express landed on my doorstep, it was a gift from the gods.
"Where do you go from here? Hopefully, somewhere down the line, I might get a good biopic feature, because I do know music really well, and I know the way those things should be made. I've seen some really bad music films, and I've seen a couple really good ones. The ones that have worked, like Almost Famous, the reason why they work is because they've been made by somebody who really understands music. Cameron Crowe obviously understands music. Hopefully that would be my next step."