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Festival Express
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by Elaine Perrone

"A train you'll want to catch."
4 stars

Early in 1970, young music promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton (then the scion of the Eaton Department Store empire) had a dream of arranging a series of rock concerts across the breadth of Canada, from Montreal to Vancouver, with the performers traveling from city to city on the mighty CN Rail. After quickly signing on Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, and The Band, among other groups, the first concert was scheduled to take place in Montreal on June 24 of that year. Instead, before the train even left the station to head west, the project rapidly started going south.

First, the mayor of Montreal, afraid of rioting between the Anglos and French separatists on Quebec's St-Jean-Baptiste holiday, cancelled the concert in his city entirely. Jumping on the bandwagon, the city of Vancouver backed out, as well. In the end, Walker and Eaton settled on a three city tour -- starting in Toronto on June 27, moving on to Winnipeg, and finishing in Calgary on July 5. They negotiated with the CN to charter a train for the private use of the performers and the filmmakers, which they christened the Festival Express and modeled on the fabled Orient Express.

The organizers would settle for nothing but the best for the travelers. When the railroad suggested a cafeteria car, Walker and Eaton quickly vetoed the idea: They wanted, and got, a dining car and fully stocked bar car, with unlimited food and drink available around the clock. The rolling stock became an elaborately fitted "rolling studio," devoted to the comfort of the filmmakers and the jamming musicians.

And jam they did! The entertainers, who had previously known each other only by reputation, ate, drank, sang and played together, becoming inseparable for the five days they were on the train. Buddy Guy tells of getting no sleep for the entire time the musicians were together, recalling that he would lie down in exhaustion then immediately get up again, afraid of missing a single thing.

In the film's lovely centerpiece scene, a well-lubricated Rick Danko and Janis Joplin happily join forces in an exuberant rendition of "Ain't No More Cane," accompanied on guitar by Jerry Garcia, who tells Joplin, in a heartfelt confession, "I've loved you since the day I saw you." It is a stunning blow when the realization dawns again that all three are gone now.

While the producers were giving the artists the time of their lives, they themselves were being given nothing but heartburn by the public. When the entourage arrived in Toronto, on June 27, they were met by protesters -- a group of 2,000 who were incensed by the two-day-ticket price of CAD 14.00, feeling that the music should be made available to them for free. The legendary, self-proclaimed "anti-authoritarian" performers, who had made friends with the members of the police force who had their backs, were appalled by the violence swirling around them. Still, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead graciously agreed to perform for the protesters and gave a free outdoor concert in a park while 20,000 paying customers reveled in the entertainment inside Exhibition Stadium. The mayor of Calgary joined in the fray when they arrived in that city, demanding that they open the gates of McMahon Stadium for free access to the young citizenry. As Walker tells it, the mayor got Walker's knuckles in his teeth for his trouble. 34 years later, a disgruntled Walker complains, "I gave too much to the public, and they didn't deserve it."

Conversely, in the words of music journalist David Dalton, where "Woodstock was a treat for the audience[, Festival Express] was a treat for the musicians," for whom Walker couldn't extend himself too much. He happily recalls ordering (and believe you me, this is a guy who "orders" with the best of them) the conductor to make an unscheduled stop in Saskatoon, where everyone piled out, passed the hat and took up a collection, and bought out a liquor store, including a huge display bottle of Canadian Club, when the bar car ran dry.

In closing the concert, Janis Joplin steps up to the microphone and joyously tells the audience, "I don't know where you've been all week, but I've been at a party." When she presents the organizers with "thank you" gifts from the entertainers -- a miniature train autographed by all, and a case of tequila -- she delightedly requests, "The next time you throw a train, man, invite me!"

Sadly, she was dead just months later, the concert's organizers were bankrupt and in litigation with each other, and roughly 75 hours of footage shot by cinematographer Peter Biziou (Unfaithful, The Truman show) lay stashed away in an Ontario garage until being fortuitously donated to the Canadian National Archives.

Piecing together the retrieved footage, which was originally shot on 16mm and blown up on 35mm, Bob Smeaton, who is credited as "director," but who should in reality be called "restorer," has done a magnificent job in recreating the period via split screens, lens flares, and other eccentricities of the day. It looks exactly as it should, had it been completed at the end of the tour in 1970, but with the added reminisces of many who were on board for the ride. As a bonus, the performances are delivered in their entirety, a gift to everyone for whom (to paraphrase Bob Weir) Rock & Roll Matters.

Throw yourself a train, man, and hop aboard!

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10222&reviewer=376
originally posted: 09/01/04 08:39:22
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User Comments

10/08/04 gary Funny thing: Had never heard of this event until now and I was a Hippie? 5 stars
9/03/04 dsitter We could happily sit through 3 hours of this - how about a sequel? 5 stars
8/26/04 Maureen McDevitt A nice ride! Complete songs-- not "snippets"! Yeah! 5 stars
8/12/04 Dave A lost treasure has surfaced! Janis Joplin singing Cry Baby..WOW! 5 stars
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  23-Jul-2004 (R)
  DVD: 02-Nov-2004



Directed by
  Bob Smeaton

Written by

  Janis Joplin
  The Grateful Dead
  The Band

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