4 July 2005 | Buddy-51
time capsule for rock lovers
In the summer of 1970, some of the world's premier rock musicians - prime among them The Grateful Dead, The Band and Janis Joplin - got together to perform a series of concerts across southern Canada. Rather than just flying to the various venues then afterwards going their separate ways, the performers boarded a train in Toronto and headed west to Calgary, stopping off at various places to "do their thing" for appreciative audiences. That train ride, which turned into a nonstop jam session among some of the top rock 'n roll talents of the time, became known as the Festival Express and this film is the chronicle of that experience.
"Festival Express" juxtaposes footage of the event with present-day interviews from some of the people who were on that train. We see the musicians jamming together in the cars then performing their sets in open-air stadiums. What the film doesn't show us is any real interpersonal connection or interaction beyond the music. Perhaps the cameras were turned off whenever the performers were talking to one another, or, perhaps, the performers were just too drunk or stoned to say anything of any real interest to one another on the trip. Either way, the film does not provide us with a very compelling behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives and personalities of these people. That is the biggest disappointment of the movie.
Be that as it may, "Festival Express" is still a useful time capsule for reminding us about what the culture was like 35 years ago. The film does an interesting job capturing the strange moral paradox that has been an intricate part of rock 'n' roll from its earliest days. For although rock music has always derived its power and strength from its anti-establishment stance and attitude, it is also a highly competitive business built on corporate interests, involving record companies, producers, promoters and millionaire performers. So how does one reconcile these two seemingly antithetical positions? How justify high ticket prices or millionaire salaries in an art form that claims as its foundational principle that the corporate establishment is the source of all the evil in the world and the very thing that the music itself is dedicated to stamping out? And how genuine can this anti-establishment attitude really be when what looks on the surface to be spontaneous rebellion is actually the result of shrewdly calculated Madison Avenue exploitation? This conundrum comes to a head in the Toronto stopover where a group of protesters outside the concert are threatening to turn violent if they aren't provided free entrance into the arena (the tickets cost a whopping $14!). These youngsters feel that, because rock claims to be a statement against everything related to money and profits, the purveyors of the message - i.e, the concert promoters and the rock stars themselves - should be willing to forego being paid for their efforts. There's humorous irony in the fact that we see these "radical" anti-establishment musicians ultimately siding with the cops on the issue and against their youthful fans on the outside! The people who were on the train keep telling us what a life-changing and euphoric experience that trip turned out to be. That may well be the case, but due to the lack of intimacy we feel with the performers, that sense doesn't really come across very effectively in the film. What the film does provide is a rare opportunity to watch a collection of iconic rock legends performing at the peak of their youth and powers. That alone is what makes "Festival Express" a must-see for aficionados.