Festival Express, a rock documentary of a 1970 traveling concert across Canada, sends you back in time. And if you happened to have come of age in the late '60s and early '70s, it's both thrilling to return, and almost unbearably poignant. One thing is certain: The music was phenomenal--and remains so. The film presents never-before-seen footage of rock legends Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia, young, brilliant and very much alive. Joplin would die just two months later from a drug overdose, but onscreen she is clearly having the time of her life, and performing at the top of her game.
When promoters Ken Walker and Thor Easton came up with the idea to hire a train, dubbed Festival Express, to bring some of the best bands of the day from Toronto to Winnipeg and Calgary, they imagined the musicians would have a blast, they would make a nice profit and there would eventually be a movie of the five-day event. Clearly, the artists thrived, especially in the well-stocked bar car, jamming night and day, but financially the tour met obstacles and the film never saw the dark of a movie theatre, until now.
Coming off Woodstock and the youth movements of the day, there were many young people resentful of the festival's $14 ticket price, and the tour met organized protests in Toronto and Calgary, including violent clashes with the police. In Toronto, fans stormed the festival gates, provoking Jerry Garcia to address the unruly crowd, urging peace, and offering an additional free concert in a local park after the organized event. The artists had more sympathy with the police (referred to as "pigs" by some of the protesters) and the festival's producers than with their countercultural counterparts. They knew you couldn't put on a music festival without spending money and, as Garcia said, "all this stuff is voluntary in nature."
Despite the protests, the concerts went on, and were captured by a young Peter Biziou (who went on to win a cinematography Oscar for Mississippi Burning). However, at the end of the tour, a conflict between the promoters and Willem Poolman, the principal producer of the planned film, led to the dispersal of the footage. Fortunately, Festival Express' producers, Poolman's son Gavin and his friend John Trapman, found some of the reels in the family garage; others were discovered by documentary filmmaker Garth Douglas and his friend James Cullingham, hidden away in the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa. It took nearly another decade to edit 46 hours of film down to 90 minutes, improve the audio (painstakingly achieved by music producer Eddie Kramer) and shoot contemporary interviews with some of the participants.
It was worth the wait. Director Bob Smeaton (who won a Grammy for both The Beatles Anthology and Hendrix: Band of Gypsies) wisely took Biziou's advice, and kept the look of the original 16mm stock, although it was blown up to 35mm. Garcia's purple tie-dyed t-shirt is just the right shade. But what fuels Festival Express is not the vintage look or the reminiscences of some of the original participants, it's the performances, both onstage and backstage, on the train. While Delaney & Bonnie, Ian & Sylvia and The Flying Burrito Brothers are underwhelming, The Dead, The Band (especially their version of "I Shall Be Released") and Buddy Guy are extraordinary. But the show really belongs to Janis Joplin. Her heart-rending, soul-bending renditions of "Cry Baby" and "Tell Mama" brought spontaneous applause from the screening audience. Often shot in extreme close-up, Janis, radiant with no makeup, despite a bad skin week, literally takes over the screen. She digs so deeply into her songs, with such cathartic passion, you feel transformed, certainly transfixed. Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, referring to the beatifically drunk musicians on the train, said, "We achieved liftoff for sure." When Janis sings the blues, the same can be said for the audience.
-Wendy R. Weinstein