Movie review: 'Festival Express'

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3½ stars (out of 4)

"Festival Express," a documentary shot in 1970, forgotten and finally edited decades later, is one of the great rock 'n' roll movies, a treasure trove of music and a wildly entertaining chronicle of a vanished time.

Directed by Bob Smeaton from the original footage with added contemporary interviews with the Festival Express' survivors, it's a record of an amazing, seemingly jinxed but ultimately triumphant rock festival tour: a five-day train ride that carried some of the era's greatest artists--including Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead--on a concert tour across Canada.

These legends and a stellar supporting cast that includes Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, Ian and Sylvia, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney and Bonnie and New Riders of the Purple Sage made beautiful music together. They jammed almost constantly on the different train cars, drank themselves into stoned bliss and unconsciousness and every once in a while disembarked to play terrific concerts before the sometimes astonishingly ungrateful and obstreperous Canadian fans.

The tour was a financial disaster but an artistic triumph, "the best time I ever had in rock 'n' roll," according to the Dead's Jerry Garcia. The delightful chaos of the journey from Toronto to Calgary to Winnipeg--as the musicians partied and played together, breaking any barriers left between rock, blues, folk and country music--was caught cinema verite style by a young cinematographer who later became one of the industry's best, Peter Biziou ("Mississippi Burning," "The Wall").

And although the tour's financial debacle put the kibosh on a planned "Woodstock"-style follow-up movie, original producer Gavin Poolman, Smeaton and Biziou have culled from 46 hours of film a movie that ranks with the best rock documentaries of a fertile period.

"Woodstock" and "Gimme Shelter" are classics because of the music and the excitement of the events they capture: the epochal Woodstock festival itself and the Rolling Stones' tragic 1969 U.S. "Altamont" tour. "Festival Express," though, catches an event almost as interesting and musically rich but largely unknown. The idea by promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton seemed sound: to carry the bands across Canada on a train where they could relax and party together between gigs, simultaneously recording and filming them. But the tour hit a financial snag when some rebel fans in Toronto claimed that the concerts, like Woodstock's, should be free, instead of carrying an expensive (but not unreasonable) $14 ticket price. When the promoters and musicians demurred, the recalcitrant (and unreasonable) fans protested and rioted, which we see. But the bands played on. And what the mics and Biziou's camera preserved, from both the concerts and those amazing train jam sessions, is priceless.

Of course, what we're seeing here is Joplin, the Dead, The Band and the others at their peaks. But we're also seeing all that musical cross-pollination on the train, including an incredible moment when Joplin, Garcia, The Band's Rick Danko and Dead bassist Phil Lesh all cut loose on "Ain't No More Cane on This Brazos." The essence of concert rock, like jazz, is improvisation and interplay, and this movie is an exemplary demonstration of musical liberation. You can already predict a long life for it on DVD, with, we hope, lots of outtakes and deleted scenes.

What the theatrical "Festival Express" expresses so powerfully, however, is the sheer unbuttoned joy of a period too often dismissed by squeaky-neat TV pundits as an orgiastic, irresponsible era when scruffy-looking people ran amok and elders (and wars) weren't respected. The musicians of "Festival Express" musicians did respect their musical elders and each other--and even the fans that made such a mess of the tour. The results are spine-tingling. There's only one thing to say about this movie and its rescuers, recovered from the dead--and the Dead: Rock on.

`Festival Express'

Directed and edited by Bob Smeaton; photographed by Peter Biziou; music mixed by Eddie Kramer; executive producers Ann Carli, Garth Douglas, James Cunningham; produced by Gavin Poolman, John Trapman. With: The Band, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy Blues Band, Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakhan, Sha Na Na, Eric Andersen. A THINKFilm release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (some language).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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