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UK: Optimum Releasing
Cast: Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin & The Full Tilt Boogie Band, The Band, Buddy Guy, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, The Flying urrito , Mashmakan, ShaNaNa, Buddy Guy Blues Band, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Rick Danko, Ken Pearson, Richard Bell, John Till, Sylvia Tyson, Jerry Mercer, Kenny Gradney, Eric Andersen, David Daltonjv, James Cullingham, Rob Bowman, Ken Walker
Director: Bob Smeaton
Countries: UK / Netherlands
USA: 90 mins
UK: 89 mins
USA Rated: R for some language
UK Certificate: 15 contains strong language and drug references
USA Release Date: 23 July 2004 (Limited Release)
UK Release Date: 3 September 2004
In 1970, a train journeyed across Canada carrying some of the greatest rock bands of the time. Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, Ian & Sylvia and others lived (and partied) together for five days, giving concerts where and when they stopped. The train was called the Festival Express.
Festival Express might just have been the greatest, and certainly the longest, non-stop rock n' roll party ever. Nicknamed "The Million Dollar Bash" by Rolling Stone magazine, Festival Express was designed to capitalise on the then-burgeoning craze for multi-day, talent-heavy music festivals. Following in the footsteps of Woodstock, by the summer of 1970 such festivals were a regular part of the rock n' roll landscape.
Festival Express was planned as a festival with a difference - it would be portable. The artists would be showcased at festival sites spanning the breadth of the Canadian heartland, from Toronto to Calgary - and transportation was by chartered train. This proved to be a stroke of genius, indelibly stamping the event with an aura of magic, as a large number of the performers signed on despite being offered fees substantially below their going rate. The musicians thought the train ride sounded like the "party to end all parties".
The musicians were right. The five day train ride provided a unique vehicle for artists as disparate as Rick Danko of The Band, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Delaney and Bonnie, and Buddy Guy to relax with one another in a setting unlikely ever to be repeated. Wholly unsupervised, these famous musicians indulged in copious amounts of drugs and alcohol consumption, musical jamming that has to be seen and heard to be believed, and heavily psychedelic conversation.
Like Woodstock, however, Festival Express was caught up in the counter-culture of the day. The opening two days in Toronto set the tone for much of the craziness that would follow. Priced at $14 for two days and over twenty bands, to some, the festival seemed like a bargain. Others, picking up on protest movements of the time, felt the music should be free. A well-organised group called the "M4M" or May 4th Movement pamphleted the city in advance, urging people not to pay but to storm the gates instead.
Scenes of the resulting chaos at the Toronto concert open a window on the politics of the era, as fans are seen trying to climb their way in, with mounted policemen unsuccessfully trying to keep them under control. The Grateful Dead responded by staging their own free festival at a local park. This mini-festival has also been captured on film, as has a press conference held in Winnepeg, the train's next stop, where the promoters try to justify themselves to a hostile media. Shining through the behaviour of the crowds (and everyone else), however, is always the music.
The footage from the train is shot in Cinema Verite style with one or two cameras, offering a glimpse of a lifestyle perhaps never to be seen again. Rock stars party their way along a psychedelic tour of northern Canada, as the train teeters through nowheresville towns with such improbable names as Medicine Hat and Moosejaw. Footage of a surreal shopping spree in Saskatoon is interspersed with footage of Janis Joplin singing with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Rick Danko, Delaney Bramlett jamming with members of Mountain, Buddy Guy's bass player singing old soul tunes, etc..
The film has been edited in a style in keeping with the period in which it was filmed, without resort to modern music television gimmickry. This includes split-screen, allowing us to make the best possible use of the many hours of footage that might otherwise have remained unseen.
Finally, adding to the narrative inherent in the footage already shot, the film uses interviews with a selection of the musicians, crew, and even some of the music lovers who were there, in order to provide today's (and tomorrow's) audiences with a unique insight into what may just have been the last great rock n' roll ride.