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2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Festival Express
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by Collin Souter

"Buy a ticket. Take the ride."
4 stars

Most documentaries we’ve seen over the past year seem to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Movies such as Control Room, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation and The Hunting of the President certainly deserve the screen space afforded to them and make for great discussion starters given our current political climate, but one can become a bit fatigued by it all. Even a “nice” movie such as The Heart and Soul of America can’t scrape by without everyone drawing a comparison between its heartfelt patriotic sentiment and Michael Moore’s scathing commentary on President Bush. This helps make the new/old rock documentary Festival Express a refreshing breather of a movie.

Using 46 hours of footage from a movie planned to be released in 1971, but completely forgotten, “Festival Express” chronicles a five day tour via train by some of rock’s most legendary artists. The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy Blues Band and even Sha-Na-Na (among others) hopped aboard a train to play a touring festival across Canada making only five stops. Inspired by Woodstock, the tour showcased a variety of musical genres, but with a major difference: Ticket prices.

Because the promoters charged a whopping $14(!) to attend the festival, Canadian fans protested and even rioted. The bands stood their ground and felt the ticket prices were not unreasonable and that the promoters, Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, deserved the compensation. To look at these guys today, you can see the tour took a toll on them. In the end, the Festival Express tour lost money (as expected), but those who paid the ticket price witnessed some of the most important artists of the time at their peak.

Too bad for the protesters. A good 80% of the performances depicted in “Festival Express” are true honest-to-goodness showstoppers. Where to begin? Janis Joplin pouring her aching heart out on “Cry Baby!”; The Band sounding every bit as good as they did in “The Last Waltz”; Sha-Na-Na stopping in to do a bang-up job on “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”; and if any artist/band out there ever want to cover “Money (That’s What I Want),” I think they should obtain permission and a license from Mr. Buddy Guy.

Of course, some of the movie’s best moments occur off-stage. While it receives sparse narration from those who were there (Ken Walker, Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and audience members all giving new interviews), “Festival Express” prefers to revel in the jam sessions and drunken tomfoolery that went on between gigs. “We had done acid and everything else before, but booze was new to us!” These were the original 24-hour party people. Nobody slept, showered or soberly watched a sunrise. At one point, the train makes an unscheduled stop at the urgent request of the bands, but I’d hate to ruin it by telling you why.

“Festival Express” is a great time to be had at a documentary. It doesn’t exist for the sake of misty-eyed nostalgia, nor does it emphasize the plight of the hippies. It simply exists to entertain and to enlighten the uninformed rock fan, such as myself. I never knew about this tour and I’ll bet many others out there didn’t know about it either. Unlike “Woodstock” or “Gimme Shelter,” it carries little historical significance, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. Come to think of it, in light of the recent, tragic cancellation of the Lollapalooza Tour (featuring one of the best festival line-ups I’ve ever seen) and the fact that rock festivals have little to no future in the current music climate, “Festival Express” might be one of the most timely documentaries out there.

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originally posted: 08/17/04 04:42:39
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User Comments

10/09/04 gary Funny thing: Had never heard of this event until now and I was a Hippie? 5 stars
9/04/04 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
8/13/04 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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