Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Altamont and Isle of Wight are famous music festivals of the late ’60s/early ’70s that have been immortalized on film. But the new documentary “Festival Express” may rank among fans and critics as one of the era’s “must see” concert films.
The documentary focuses on an overlooked event in rock history: the five-day, cross-country festival tour of Canada in 1970, where acts including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, the Band and Buddy Guy traveled together on a train called the Festival Express.
THINKFilm will release “Festival Express” in select U.S. theaters this summer. The movie opens July 23 in San Francisco and July 30 in New York and Los Angeles. It will have a rollout in other cities in August.
“This just may be the last great rock’n’roll movie of that time,” says documentary director Bob Smeaton, who has won two Grammy Awards for directing such longform music videos as “The Beatles Anthology” and “Live at Fillmore East” from Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys.
Footage of “Festival Express,” originally shot by Peter Bizou, had been stored in the Canadian National Archives for nearly 25 years. It then took almost 10 years for the project to be completed for theatrical release. “It was truly a labor of love,” says Gavin Poolman, who produced the movie with John Trapman.
When Smeaton came on board for the project, he had to comb through about 40 hours of raw footage, much of which had to be “cleaned up” through digital transfers and audio restoration. “It took about nine months to get the performances’ sound and pictures to match,” Smeaton tells Billboard.
Joplin is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, with electrifying performances of “Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama” that underscore her legendary status. The movie documents the problems the tour encountered when protesters demanded free admission for concertgoers. It also captures the camaraderie that existed among the musicians as they socialized and performed together on the train. The Dead even wrote a song about the experience, “Might As Well.”
The film includes commentary from the festival’s participants, who offer their perspectives on the event. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh; Guy; and festival co-promoter Ken Walker are among those interviewed.
Poolman theorizes why the tour remained in the shadows of the Woodstock and Monterey Pop festivals. “At the time, the Festival Express tour was not considered a success. It lost money, and the venues weren’t that full. But the musicians involved remembered it as a phenomenal event.”