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Laramie Movie Scope:
Festival Express

A wild music party on steel wheels

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 31, 2005 -- Because I was out of town when “Festival Express” screened here, I did not get to see it until it came out on video. While I missed the big screen experience, the DVD has some significant advantages over the film, mainly, it has a number of musical performances that were not included in the film's theatrical release. Some of these performances are better than the ones included in the theatrical release.

The other advantage the DVD has over the film is that it has features which explain the fascinating story of how this film was lost for over 30 years, and how it was found, restored and released after years of legal wrangling. This is a story not to be missed. The rare concert footage of the late Janis Joplin, as well as high-quality concert footage of The Band, The Grateful Dead and other groups in their prime is priceless.

The events portrayed in this film happened in 1970, when promoters hit upon the idea of a kind of traveling Woodstock tour in Canada. The concerts would be held in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. Promoters rented a train and tied a Festival Express banner on the side. The dining car was filled with food and liquor available 24 hours a day. Cars were also set up with amplifiers, drums and other equipment, so the musicians could play music whenever they wanted to, and they did just that. It was a five-day, non-stop rolling party and jam session. The top bands of the day boarded the train and rode it to the three concerts.

Concert footage includes the following performances, Grateful Dead -- “Casey Jones,” “Don't Ease Me In,” “Friend of the Devil,” “New Speedway Boogie.” The Band -- “Slippin' and Slidin,'” “I Shall Be Released,” “The Weight.” Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band -- “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Cry Baby,” “Tell Mamma.” The Flying Burrito Brothers, “Lazy Day.” Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, “Goin' Down The Road.” Buddy Guy Blues Band -- “Money.” Mashmakhan -- “Comin' Home Baby.” Sha Na Na --“Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay.” Ian & Sylvia & The Great Speckled Bird -- “CC Rider.”

In addition to the concert footage, there is even more rare footage of jam sessions on the train, including Jerry Garcia and Sylvia Tyson singing “Better Take Jesus' Hand.” In one tender moment, Jerry Garcia turns to Janis Joplin on the train and tells her he has always loved her. This scene was filmed just two months before Joplin's death. Of course, Garcia has also passed away now. This movie was filmed when these legendary musicians were young and at the top of their powers. In fact, I have never seen footage of Joplin that looks this good, sounds this good, or which better shows the awesome raw emotional power of her performances.

The DVD also shows how the radical politics of the era helped ruin the concerts financially. Concert goers of that era had become accustomed to storming the gates and getting in for free, as they did in Woodstock. Promoters hired enough police to keep gate-crashers out, but that led to ill will which kept concert attendance low, even though musicians held free concerts to try to placate the crowds. In a way, this was a foreshadowing of the mentality which led to free music downloads on the Internet, causing havoc in the music industry 30 years later.

“Festival Express” is a good snapshot of an earlier, simpler, more innocent time that seems now even longer ago than it was. It is a warm-hearted tribute to joyful music, liberally sprinkled with scenes of elite musicians playing music simply because they want to share their music with each other. Unlike some documentaries made during this era, the (digitally enhanced) image and multi-channel sound quality are quite good. This film rates a B.

The DVD has lots of extras on it. Available Audio Tracks include both Dolby (TM) Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound. There is over 50 minutes of bonus concert footage. There are uninterrupted music tracks, extended interviews, a making-of featurette, photo gallery and trailer among the goodies on this two-disc set. The images are widescreen anamorphic with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This DVD rates a B+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)