When the great rockers were on a roll

`Festival Express' foretells end of '60s

MovieReviews

September 10, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Festival Express is a find to be cherished, a relic of a long-ago time and place that's filled with joy and vibrancy. Better yet, it's got a touch of poignancy, too - maybe not enough to bring a tear to the eye, but more than enough to make you cherish the magic of a film that captures forever what would otherwise be restricted to the mind's eye.

The time is the tail end of the '60s/dawn of the '70s, the place is a train traveling through Canada on its way to the soul of rock 'n' roll. The poignancy is provided by the presence of a singer who symbolized so much of the promise inherent in the music she loved, but who would crash in a way that proved all too reflective of the reality.

In the summer of 1970, a couple of rock promoters, displaying a mix of '60s idealism and what would become '70s practicality, had the bright idea to charter a train, fill it with some of America's premier rock acts and stage a series of concerts as it journeyed from east to west across Canada.

Among the acts who signed on were the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Ian & Sylvia & the Great Speckled Bird. Oh, yeah, and a young woman from Texas named Janis Joplin.

The trip quickly ran into problems, primarily from protesters who, in a spirit of free enterprise that seems antiquated and hopelessly naive today, insisted the concerts should be free and balked, sometimes violently, at the $14 ticket price. After all, expecting people to pay to hear music was so establishment. (It was left to Jerry Garcia and the Dead to remind everyone that the promoters had shelled out a lot of money to finance this gig, and they deserved to earn some of it back.)

But the bands and their train soldiered on, jamming ceaselessly onboard, stopping for concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, enjoying the last wisps of the Summer of Love and its promise of an endless party fueled by limitless good will.

While the concert footage is spectacular - especially the Band performing "The Weight" and Joplin belting out a typically fevered version of "Cry Baby" - the real attraction is watching all these guys and gals on the train, so young, so dedicated to their music, so unconcerned about almost everything else. And yes, so drunk - the '60s certainly were not without their vices, although Bob Weir of the Dead, one of several interview subjects whose comments frequently play on a split screen alongside the original film, wryly insists alcohol "was a new experience for us. It worked just fine."

In a very real sense, even though no none knew it at the time, the spirit so joyously celebrated in Festival Express was on its last legs. One can detect hints of that end in the squabbling over ticket prices, hear it in the desperation of the promoters, who quickly realize their situation is hopeless (like the organizers of Woodstock, they ended up losing a ton of money).

But it becomes crystal clear every time the camera finds Joplin, and we remember something she could not possibly have known. Within weeks of the Festival Express reaching the end of its line, so did Janis, dead of a drug overdose at age 27.

Festival Express

Starring The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band

Directed by Bob Smeaton

Released by THINKFilm

Rated R (Language, heavy alcohol use)

Time 87 minut

SUN SCORE * * * *

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