Festival Express Bob Smeaton

Just after Woodstock, in glorious 1970, promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton had the genius idea of rounding up some talented bands for a train trip across Canada, stopping at a few large cities along the way for one of rock’s first super-tours.

Beginning in Toronto, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, the Band, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers and others played for 14 bucks, a charge many leftover hippies decided was actually inflated enough to storm gates manned by cops on horses. Playing an additional free show nearby to acquiesce to the crowd’s demands, the bands then hopped on the train headed to Winnipeg and Calgary while dogged by the controversy of the Toronto event and simply eager for a good time. The rather unjustifiably outraged (and maybe even drunk) Canadians, including the Mayor of Calgary, who tried to gain press by supporting a movement against the ticket prices, reflects a surreally outlandish Canadian youth on pristine 16mm footage once considered forever lost.

This footage’s scattered lifespan is Festival Express’s strongest attraction, long hidden between labs and basements around the country, and at one point even used as hockey goal posts by a young Gavin Poolman, the contemporary producer of the film. Featuring a transfer to 35mm by DOP Peter Biziou that wisely highlights the 16mm look rather than disguising it for a modern audience, the verite camera work stands as a stirringly constructed document of many popular performances, including a few captivating efforts by Janis Joplin (who would die less than two months after this tour). And the camaraderie and solidarity between the musicians and management provide the tour with a blast of good karma, and, of course, the plethora of food and drugs inspires countless wasted collaborations.

The gorgeous railroad scenery from the trek is used judiciously and is guaranteed to inspire passengers of the route by revealing a fresh look at the land surrounding Canada’s longest serving cross-country connection. While better chosen contemporary subjects may have heightened the context of the project, and the basic "party" storyline can sometimes grow a bit thin, Festival Express is essentially a concert film that also manages to intimately document a trip in time that’s all about the ride. (Th!nk)