I went to see "Festival Express" last night, and liked it. LJ may be the wrong demographic home to talk about this (in the hope of getting other "I saw it and really liked ..." responses). I could go over to The Well, where there are probably long frame-by-frame analyses and people-identification threads on this from other Old People of my musical ilk. In posting here, I'm probably looking to say that something unique and extraordinary was happening back there -- saying that to people who haven't had the eye-witness experience.
The movie is a grainy, but well-photographed, time-machine look at some events and people at the neuronic core of the year 1970. If you enjoyed "Monterey Pop," but are less enthusiastic about public documents such as "Don't Look Back," and "Big Sur Festival," then "Festival Express" may disappoint you. Musically, I think most of the performances in it are better than the ones captured in the Woodstock movie -- but they're not at the Monterey Pop level.
Background for casual passersby:
Finally released at the Toronto Film Fest in 2003, this 90-minute film by Canadian director Bob Smeaton documents the legendary 1970 tour with The Band, The Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, Ian and Sylvia, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Tom Rush, Buddy Guy, Eric Andersen, Mountain, Ten Years After, Traffic, Seatrain, Charlebois, James and the Good Brothers, Cat Mashmakan and The Modern Rock Quartet.
The Band perform "Slippin' and Slidin'," "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released." Rick Danko appears in jam sessions with Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy and others.
I wouldn't rate Bob Smeaton, the Festival Express director, at the genius level of D.A. Pennebaker. But "Festival Express" captures a few brilliant musical performances in its 90 minutes that are worth the price of admission. It presents a montage that hints at the passion, creativity, and artistic precision that bubbled around some of the stoned, hedonistic icons of this period. A number of them suffered, dissipated themselves, or died unpleasantly -- as a direct consequence of poor impulse control. But the idealization of their art that dominated the media for so long (to the annoyance of two succeeding generations) was not all silly hyperbole.
In particular, I'm thinking about The Band -- who, for me, capture and play the heart and soul of America as well as Walt Whitman did. It's been so long since I've seen them perform, that I'd almost forgotten the good-time lifestyle intelligence and poetry in their musical core. The sideburned, bearded, gold granny-spectacled Robbie Robertson singing and picking, backed up by the mad organ genius of Garth Hudson, the steady, driving drum beat of Levon Helm, and the soulful voices of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, allowed a generation of intelligent, middle class twenty-somethings to hear America singing.
Years later, Robbie Robertson managed to encapsulate another place that some of us lived in:
So far, so near
Like a time machine take you out to a different year
Phoebus Apollo played on his lyre
While we danced to the music of the sphere
And as the moon went down and the sun came up
With the mercury risin' too
'Twas then the prophet said the secret of the dead
I'll whisper it to you
Livin' in another world
Livin' in another time
Like a comet I was hurled
Oh, livin' in another world
Janis Joplin's performances in "Festival Express" are also good snapshots of her musical power. Jerry Garcia is captured in typical acts of being the young Jerry Garcia.