Festival Express

2003, Movie, R, 90 mins

Review

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The rock festivals at Woodstock, New York, and Altamont, Calif., embodied the '60s counterculture's polar extremes and inspired two great, epoch-defining documentaries, WOODSTOCK and GIMME SHELTER (both 1970). The contemporary but largely "Canadian Woodstock," a traveling musical circus that chugged its way by train from Toronto to Winnipeg, was equally well documented, but the film went unmade until 2003. In 1970, Canadian promoters assembled a multiband festival to play numerous cities over a five-day period. Rather than flying bands in and out on a staggered schedule, they chartered a train, renamed the Festival Express, and fitted it with every rock 'n' roll luxury, including a supposedly inexhaustible supply of alcohol that ran out halfway through the trip, necessitating an unscheduled stop for a liquor run in isolated Saskatoon. The line-up included Janis Joplin (who died two months later), the Band, the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Flying Burrito Brothers, '50s-revival act Sha Na Na and a host of lesser country- and blues-rock acts, and while the shows were marred by protests and poor ticket sales, the nonstop jams aboard the train were electrifying. Film crews shot a total of 75 hours of footage, but by the tour's end disagreements between producer Willem Poolman, and promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton had completely derailed the documentary. Reels wound up scattered across Canada, stashed in garages and basements; one fortunate cache found a climate-controlled berth in the Canadian National Archives. Twenty-five years later, music fans James Cunningham and Garth Douglas began investigating rumors that a film documenting the festival still existed; their efforts eventually turned up 46 hours of original camera negative, 15 of which had never even been printed. The 16mm time capsule includes unguarded footage of antiestablishment rock legends that's less startling now than it would have been then, notably members of the Grateful Dead defending the promoters' ticket prices and casting their sympathies with the Toronto police rather than hippies militating for free admission. Director Bob Smeaton showcases complete songs in unobtrusively edited segments, rather than abbreviating them or using rapid cutting to create flashy visual interest; the result is a vivid record of live acts whose rough-edged immediacy is an integral part of their appeal. He alternates vintage footage with modern-day interviews, eliciting few startling insights but providing a bittersweet contrast between middle-aged survivors of the era's excesses and the bright-eyed youngsters jamming and boozing, cocooned in their conviction that the party will never end. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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