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Think Film

Official Site

Director: Bob Smeaton

Producers: Gavin Poolman, John D. Trapton


For a week in the summer of 1970, a passenger train inhabited by some of the era’s most significant rock ’n’ roll acts blazed across the Canadian expanse like some groovy psychedelic rocket. From within its metal hull, as it sped down those crazy Canuck tracks, there could be heard the echo of the never-ending party which issued from the many funky compartments of said train, products of the meeting and inevitable jamming of sundry musicians, many of whom had never before met, many of whom had never before jammed. Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Mashmakhan, and, of course, Sha Na Na—they were all aboard, and they did all, to the last, rock out. Waves of kaleidoscopic colors and anthropomorphic, undulating musical notes could almost be seen—if one was to squint hard through LSD-enhanced eyes—radiating from that merrymaking convoy. That’s just how far-out it was, man.

This train itself, and the handful of stadium-sized shows which the musicians played, were both dubbed the “Festival Express” (which, in turn, was dubbed in the years after the festival’s occurrence, “The Canadian Woodstock,” to give you an indication of how legendarily revered, to those in the know, the mostly-forgotten event became). The Festival Express’s mission was simple: To provide a quality and diverse rock ’n’ roll extravaganza to the pasty, ratty Canadian populace. In large part, they failed.

Enraged by the Express’s $14 ticket price, hordes of shirtless and quavering Canadian youths staged protests outside of the stadiums where the musicians played, enigmatically demanding that the music be given to them for free, and often resorting to mob violence when the pigs (as the police were colloquially referred to in those hazy days) attempted to establish order—all of this in the supposed era of peace, love. (Unexpectedly, Festival Express acts as a rebuttal to Michael Moore’s manipulative claim in Bowling For Columbine that Canada is a nonviolent wonderland, the antithesis of America. Instead, it is more than evident that even Canadians are capable of senseless aggression, too—and doesn’t that thought just warm your star-spangled heart?) But as the protestors’ rallies gained publicity and the Festival Express’s promoters hemorrhaged profits at each stop, the musicians aboard the hallucinatory steam train (who, ironically, were forced to subside mostly on alcohol because of the difficulty in transporting their beloved psychotropics across the border) remained in a state of absolute musical euphoria throughout the journey, experimenting loosely and collaboratively all across the days and nights. Aboard the train, between shows, no one slept; the train was for music, not slumber.

The sense of community formed amongst the passengers of the Festival Express resonates long as a bittersweet comment on the state of modern commercial music. No ego darkened the interactions between the musicians, no entourages flaunted their figurehead to be the more monumental than any other. There was a simple comradeship, a childish excitement and a gratefulness to be jointly playing with a respected peer, or a group of respected peers. There was laughter. There was joy. There was music. Hallelujah.

Also bittersweet are the presences and performances by Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia and, most notably, Janis Joplin, whose concert segments are (and please don’t snigger at the triteness of the following sentiment) revelatory. Garcia appears always affable (at one stop he quells a revolt by protestors by staging a free Dead show in a nearby park following their Festival Express act) and rapturously in love with the music. In the shots aboard the train which document the myriad jam sessions which took place, Garcia is most commonly found amidst the passengers, always with a smile gleaming from within the obfuscating brush of his jet-black beard. And Joplin, for those who have never experienced the equal parts banshee wail and aural ambrosia which comprised her voice, is ever-enthusiastic and unceasingly charismatic. She is the swaggering and breezy female epitome of her time, and is memorialized here in two complete concert segments. Especially poignant is her obliging speech to Festival Express promoters Ken Walker and Thor Easton, in which she thanks them for allowing her to be a part of the procession, and asks them to keep her in mind for a next go-round. Just two months later she would be dead.

As a film, Festival Express never quite gains enough momentum to make it riveting. It continually consigns time which could have been devoted to more on-train jam sessions to meticulously detailing the actions of the protestors, which conclude anticlimactically. As a lovingly presented (the grainy, circa-1970 16mm photography is saturated and gorgeous) document of an extinguished time period, however, it sparks like the burning end of a roach in the dark.

—Nathan Baran

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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