The close of the 1960s represents the pinnacle of the rock-festival era. 1969 unleashed two now-legendary festivals into rock’s collective unconscious: a three-day journey-to-Mecca in upstate New York and Altamont Speedway’s disturbing Rolling Stones showcase (itself the site of a murder that the Maysles’ brothers’ fine concert film Gimme Shelter manages to capture in grueling detail). In addition, 1969’s Isle of Wight festival drew notice thanks to Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic decision to attend.The following year a man named Ken Walker decided to charter a train – dubbed the Festival Express – to cart some of rock’s best known acts across Canada for a week’s worth of concerts.The 16mm footage, captured by film crews riding the rails with performers and subsequently lost for decades, depicts a music culture in transition.
It’s been said that everything changed for the counter-culture on that sad December day at Altamont, and while that’s doubtless an exaggeration, the crowd at the three Festival Express stops – in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary – surely seems of a radically different mindset than the peace-love purveyors at Woodstock. The film shows the Toronto crowd violently reacting to the $14 ticket price, resulting in a gate-crashing standoff with police that was only assuaged by the Grateful Dead’s concession to play a free concert in an adjoining park. To the festival promoters’ credit, they never let the unruly crowds ruin the vibe.Faced with certain financial disaster, they encouraged the musicians to focus instead on the overnight train rides, which became marathon jam sessions fueled by a well-stocked “bar car.”
Lacking the psychodrama of Gimme Shelter’s murder or Dylan’s imploding genius in D.A. Pennebaker’s fascinating Don’t Look Back, Festival Express has little to fall back on aside from its performances. Smartly, director Bob Smeaton has chosen to let each performance play out in its entirety, even the tipsy after-hours tunes, the most memorable of which is a squawking version of “Aint No More Cane On the Brazos” led by The Band’s Rick Danko and aided by Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.Still, given three full-day concerts and a wealth of overnight improv, the film could easily have run past 90 minutes.Worse still, it’s padded with useless bits like that old chestnut of the travelogue film:the map tracing their itinerary with an animated dotted-line.
But those seeking their money’s worth need only wait through half the film, at which point Joplin lets loose a version of “Cry Baby” that should stand as one of the great performances in any concert film.Two months from her death, she glows like a banshee, channeling bacchic energy into spoken-word soul; the camera stays trained on her face until she seems ready to faint. There is a mesmerizing urgency and timelessness in her appearance that momentarily transforms the film. Following her performance, the fade to black is plenty lonely.