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Review: Festival Express

Festival Express only delivers, at its best, a mild contact high.

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Festival Express
Photo: THINKFilm

Woodstock may have been a blast for its audience, but The Festival Express—a five-day rock tour in the summer of 1970 where artists like The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, and Buddy Guy traveled through Canada in a fully loaded locomotive—was where it was at for the artists. Festival Express, a new documentary about this steamrolling circus of sin and scintillating music, was culled from hours of previously unseen footage by director Bob Smeaton, and those who enjoy straightforward concert films that focus on the performances rather than the extraneous stuff surrounding the shows will find much to savor. While the filmmakers don’t come close to capturing the spirit of a generation the way Woodstock did, they do attempt to replicate that forerunner’s revolutionary editing techniques via rather dull split-screen effects that visually link the scruffy, unkempt hippie performers with their scruffy, unkempt hippie fans, all of whom seem to have shared a communal love for awkwardly flailing their intoxicated selves around as a form of “dancing.” Smeaton’s film only exists because the concert clips are frequently dazzling, such as a roaring version of “Money” by Buddy Guy—whose participation alongside predominately white musicians speaks to the film’s underlying theme of music’s power to break down social barriers—and a thrilling, hothouse rendition of “Tell Mama” by Joplin, her vibrantly scraggly Earth-mother aura gorgeously captured by Peter Biziou and Bob Fiore’s longing close-ups. Yet despite hearing (in both archival and present-day interviews with tour promoter Ken Walker, Buddy Guy, and The Dead’s Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, among others) that the Festival Express was an all-out party in which ecstatic musicians drank, smoked, and jammed their way through the unspoiled Canadian countryside, there’s far too little evidence of such debauchery or spontaneous musical collaboration on display. Smeaton fills out the blank space(s) surrounding the heady, jubilant shows with lackluster vignettes showing the train stopping directly outside a liquor store to restock and Toronto fans—exhibiting the worst aspects of hippie extremism—causing a ruckus because the concert isn’t free. The bands may have been, as Jerry Garcia can be heard singing over the title credits, “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” but Festival Express only delivers, at its best, a mild contact high.

Cast: Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, The Flying Burrito Bros., Sha Na Na Director: Bob Smeaton Distributor: THINKFilm Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video

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