A few months after initial filming stopped on what was to become Festival Express, the film chronicle of a five-day train ride/multi-concert swing through Canada featuring rock gods (and lesser deities) of the day, Janis Joplin was dead. Can you see something in her eyes that would hint at her imminent demise in this newly discovered footage? Does her performance betray the ravages of the Southern Comfort and smack that raced through her veins as mightily as the screeching wails that escaped her lungs?
Like many of the myth-busting details of this trip, the answers are somewhat surprising. Joplin looks great. Her “Cry, Baby” is delivered passionately, hitting a range musically and emotionally that just flat-out stuns you. Even if you’re not a fan (which I’m not), her power and skill are undeniable.
So, a promoter decides to get bands like the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buddy Guy and even Sha Na Na to play a series of concerts across Canada. From Toronto to Winnipeg they roll, soaking up all the legal and illegal amenities the chartered train has to offer.
In one car, the blues holds sway. In another, it’s bluegrass. In another, it’s rock. No one ever goes to sleep, afraid they’ll miss something. In contrast, the live performances they’ve agreed to are not so laid-back. Hundreds of dirty hippies descend on the venues, demanding to be let in for free. Down with the pigs, man! They riot. They fight with the police, even cracking one cop’s skull open like a coconut. The bands are getting pissed — at the cops? No. They’re pissed at the hippies who’d rather fuck things up than pay the 14 bucks to see the 20 bands that go on each night.
But this movie isn’t about politics. It’s about the music, which is showcased in a refreshingly unslick, unpretentious fashion. From the impromptu jam-outs on the train to the sun-soaked performance stage, the slightly grainy and unsteady camerawork captures the heart and soul of the matter simply and plainly. It occasionally pans out to show the less than impressive crowds dancing and swaying and smiling all stoned and groovy-like. It also features interviews with survivors of the trip, reflecting back on something that now seems a snapshot of an era about to collapse on itself.
Though the trip hemorrhaged money, the only concern of the promoters was to keep the train, and the party, rolling. When the train ran out of booze, it was promptly ordered to stop at the nearest town, where the musicians bought every bottle they could get their hands on. It’s an almost quaint scene that would seem impossible to re-create in today’s organized, rehearsed, perfectly posed music biz atmosphere. That’s the charm of Festival Express: It showcases a time and place that is forever gone, no matter how hard Phish tried to keep it around.
Showing at the Birmingham Palladium 12, located at 250 N. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham. Call 248-644-FILM. Also showing at the Birmingham 8, located at 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham. Call 248-644-FILM.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.