In present-day interviews, promoter Ken Walker ruefully admits to having outsized ambitions for Festival Express. The "Express" part of the name refers to the train that spent a week delivering the acts to concert venues across Canada. The bar car featured amplifiers and a drum kit, so during the long hours riding the rails, the train turned into a sleep-deprived combination of jam session and dorm party.
In its best scenes, Festival Express provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective on diverse musicians rocking out. Some of the impromptu tunes prove tight and professional, while others are merely giddy clowning, like Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and the Band's Rick Danko stumbling their way through "No More Cane on the Brazos."
The long, strange trip provides funny anecdotes: When the bar car runs dry, the Express makes an unscheduled stop to buy up all the booze in Saskatoon. The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir makes a surprising admission about the musicians' approach to intoxicants: "A lot of us were new to drinking then," as they favored LSD or marijuana.
Unfortunately, Festival Express shows after-the-fact interviews with musicians and journalists talking about what a blast it was, when you'd rather see more material from the train itself. At times the concert footage proves limited, as well. When the Band plays "Weight," the bad sightlines keep singer Levon Helm's face half-concealed. The film frequently shows sequences in split-screen, apparently because the Oscar-winning Woodstock did the same thing.
Fortunately, the film records legendary rock acts at the height of their powers, such as the Band's cheerful, rollicking version of "Slippin' and Slidin'." Joplin, in "Cry Baby" and the film's climactic "Tell Mama," reminds us of her elemental force as a soul singer. She delivers endearingly spacey monologues over the bridges of both songs, but otherwise seizes melodies and shrieks lyrics like she's feeling every shred of emotion in the music. Knowing that she died about two months after Festival Express leaves you freshly saddened at her untimely death and a little amazed that she didn't burn out even sooner.
Festival Express acknowledges the where-are-they-now acts on the roster like Ian & Sylvia & the Great Speckled Bird's intriguing rendition of "C.C. Rider." Sha Na Na's zany take on "Rock and Roll (Is Here to Stay)" is one of the unexplained mysteries of the time: Why was Sha Na Na invited to Festival Express and Woodstock? It's like inducting a Six Flags 1950s cover band into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
With his jet-black hair and beard, Jerry Garcia cuts a remarkably youthful figure as he leads the Grateful Dead on a crisp, commanding version of "Don't Ease Me In" on the afternoon of the tour's opening concert in Toronto. Garcia also tries to play peacemaker when angry fans disrupt the Toronto show. Student protesters, outraged by the $14 ticket prices, demand a free concert and call for a boycott of Festival Express. Commenting on the subsequent rioting, Weir says: "They were looking for an excuse to bust cops' heads." (These are Canadians we're talking about, right? Just checking.)
Protests dogged the entirety of Festival Express and cost the organizers a fortune, putting a fitting irony in Buddy Guy's scorching performance of "Money (That's What I Want)." Walker sums up Festival Express by saying, "I gave the public too much, and they didn't deserve it," a strikingly jaundiced assessment of a part of pop history usually given to rose-colored memories.
CRY BABY: Janis Joplin in Festival Express