Festival Express

Festival Express
All of the great rock documentaries from the days of the dinosaurs (Don't Look Back, Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz) offer something more than just classic live footage: they tell stories about the artists and events that add depth to the central performances. Festival Express really ought to do the same, but the filmmakers never choose an angle to explore in any depth. The premise is rich in possibility: one week in the summer of 1970, an all-star line-up of musicians (Janis Joplin, the Dead, the Band, the Burritos, Buddy Guy and more) travel across Canada on a chartered CN train playing shows in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, with the train cars rigged to allow the musicians to jam together at all points between. Certainly the film captures some excellent performances both onstage and onboard, but it never quite gives us a reason to care about them. There are maybe a dozen interesting stories that suggest themselves and then just vanish — we never get a sense of the relationships that developed on the train, or of the personalities that were in crisis, or of the complicated politics that resulted from mixing a bunch of ex-hippies with a newly politicised audience and a burgeoning music industry. Fortunately, the new DVD release reissue begins to do what the film fails to do, including nearly 90 minutes of extra interviews and performances (doubling the original length) that give a real sense of what this film should have been. (MGM)