In June 1970, rock and roll performers including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and Buddy Guy travelled across northern Canada in a chartered train. Cameras followed the musicians as they lived, partied and performed together over five days. The tour proved financially disastrous and the footage remained locked in the vaults of Canada's National Film Archives until 1994. Mixing new interviews with the archival footage, Festival Express charts a rock and roll adventure and reflects on its meaning more than three decades later.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
With the pimples of a teenager, the tired eyes of a grandmother and a voice that remains unrivalled in the history of female rock singers, Janis Joplin will make your hair stand on end in Festival Express. For me, Joplin is the standout in this record of a little-known rock'n'roll happening from the era of Woodstock and Monterey. Apart from the mostly fabulous collection of music it presents (50s revival band ShaNaNa are the hilariously awful exception), Festival Express is noteworthy as a record of the changing times in which this "let's put on a show" enterprise took place.
As the train carrying Joplin and company charges through cities and hick towns like Moosejaw and Medicine Point, we can see the last embers of the Summer of Love fading away and the dark clouds of the 70s hate generation forming. The communal good vibes among the musicians and promoters are starkly contrasted with the hostile reception the tour received in most places it stopped. Generating the bad vibes among Canadian youth was the $14 price promoters were asking punters to pay for two days entertainment apparently many believed this should have been a free event. The sight of mounted police charging into crowds and barriers being torn down brings to mind the December 1969 Rolling Stones Altamont speedway concert (filmed in Gimme Shelter) and reminds us yet again of the violence simmering beneath the surface of the so-called love generation.
The incidents that doomed the event's financial fortunes are the reason this footage has remained unseen for over thirty years and are the critical factor that makes this much more than just another rock concert movie. Festival Express gives us an up close and personal look at rock and roll stars before they started to be surrounded by teams of security agents and corporate PR flunkies. You won't see your favourite boy band or Australian Idol contestant kicking back with a mountain of marijuana and a gallon of booze, but here you will see some of the biggest stars of the day happily getting drunk and stoned as if cameras weren't even present. A couple of the stop-offs are pretty wild, too - particularly Janis Joplin's booze-buying mission at a liquor shop in Saskatoon. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that heavy alcohol consumption was new to most of them - LSD and pot being the preferred stimulants up to that point. What's clear from the footage is the pure love of music and performance that inspired all concerned to climb aboard the train and keep going even when it became clear no-one was going to make a Canadian dollar.
An illuminating collection of contemporary interview grabs bears this out and one can't help feeling that for many of the participants, this was one of the best five days of their lives. Presented in unfussy style and marked by spot-on photography by principal cameraman Peter Bizou and a thumping soundtrack that could wake the dead, Festival Express is a must for music lovers and anyone who wants to know about the tempo of the times.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This was the A Train in every respect: an A list of the era's rock n'roll musos on a single-minded journey across Canada in a train hired for the purpose and fitted out with a proper dining car which was on stand by to serve everything from late breakfast to midnight snacks. And that was at the behest of Festival Express promoter Ken Walker, who insisted on top service all the way. It was one big joyride for the bands, and Walker lost significant dollars on the trip, but he never wavered from his stylish promotion.
The payoff is in the enthusiasm and dedication of the musos, who drank and partied and played/sang like there was no tomorrow. Well, there was no tomorrow like those five days. Jammed together on a speeding train, they mingled and jammed non-stop. But there's plenty of footage of the historic concerts, too, including some iconic moments with Janis Joplin, the fiery rustbucket voice coming from an abyss of emotion and the earthy face of a pre-botox era.
Often using split screens to place the 30 year old footage adjacent to contemporary interviews, the filmmakers achieve a remarkable sense of context in which some part of the 70s replays through the music. And of course there was a different jam session in each carriage of the (long) train; more' the pity they didn't sell tickets to the ride, because this is where the hot stuff happened. And not a security guard or press minder in sight.
From Toronto to Winnipeg, for example, it was over two days of jamming and being together on the train. Just imagine the vibe! Many were trying alcohol for the first time, replacing LSD or pot. They quickly took to it. And mixed it.
But the fun was somewhat soured by protesting youths who demanded to be let in free - and given free food and free dope. The clashes with the police were played up by a headline-hungry media to show the cops as the bad guys, which really annoyed the Festival Express musos, who dismissed the protesters: "These people weren't looking for free music; they were looking for trouble."
The protesters managed to poison the tour and ticket sales slumped. But the spirits aboard the Festival Express did not. Ken Walker took a philosophical attitude: "Hey, let's carry on and party." They didn't need to be told twice. As Janis Joplin quipped to Walker on stage towards the end, "Next time you throw a train, invite me, man!"
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EDDIE KRAMER INTERVIEW
FESTIVAL EXPRESS (M)
CAST: Documentary with Janis Joplin & Band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy Blues Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird, Mashmakhan, Sha Na Na
PRODUCER: Gavin Poolman, John D. Trapman
DIRECTOR: Bob Smeaton
SCRIPT: Bob Smeaton
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Biziou, Bob Fiore
EDITOR: Eamonn Power
PRODUCTION DESIGN: N/a
RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Magna Pacific
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 18, 2004