Festival Express: A long, strange trip...through Canada

Sept. 12, 2004, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 19 years, 5 months ago

I suppose I like Festival Express because it is something of a throwback.

It's a throwback to the wonderful pre-Fahrenheit 9/11 days of documentary filmmaking when documentaries, as the name suggests, documented. Popular documentaries are today so mired in political rhetoric that I briefly feared for the survival of the genre, what with audiences appearing to favor the malicious (Michael Moore accosting senators on the street) over the meaningful (when was the last time you watched Frontline, PBS's Oscar-nominated documentary program?). For a glorious hour and a half my fears were almost totally allayed, as the film simply documents the six-day drinking binge that was The Band, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin's "Festival Express" tour through southern Canada, so named for the train that carried the vaunted rock acts between festival sites.

This movie is not unique because of how it documents the tour, as the film is by no means a study in brilliant, or even mediocre filmmaking. Rather, it is unique because of what it documents. It documents Janis Joplin drunk, it documents Janis Joplin screaming, it documents Janis Joplin high, it documents extemporaneous monologues in the middle of songs sung by Janis Joplin. It documents Jerry Garcia attempting to halt a riot at the tour's Toronto concert, and, during one of the movie's more memorable scenes, it documents the tour buying $800 worth of booze at a Saskatoon liquor store.

Of course the live music scenes are incredible, but if a pure concert movie is what you're looking for, than I recommend saving a few bucks and renting Woodstock or Last Waltz. But if you want to gain some respect for what dozens of talented, drugged-out musicians can do when stuffed in close quarters and given almost limitless amounts of alcohol, then Festival Express is the film for you.

Which brings me to the other reason that Festival Express is such a throwback: it harkens back to the almost mythical time when money simply didn't matter in music. The Festival Express tour was hemorrhaging cash from its first stop onward; however, unlike the 2004 Lollapalooza tour, where promoters pulled the plug on the venture before the first concert, the Express continued to the end at the insistence of the promoter that was losing money.

With the emerald visage of capital casting a pall over, well, practically everything, I doubt a promoter would today sacrifice his own money simply to put on one heck of a rock show. But it happened in the summer of 1970, a time when, as Grateful Dead member Bob Wier said, "music was becoming more than entertainment." And then, as band after band after band "sold out," as lopsided recording contacts inflated the cost of producing, and therefore purchasing music, as these recording contracts required artists to charge more and more for admission to concerts, thereby depriving music fans of their single physical connection to their heroes, as MTV pushed the commercialization of music to sickening new heights, as the money-hungry music industry alienated its customers with $15 CD's and an all-out campaign against downloading and as money tainted the very soul of music, music fell right back down to earth.

Festival Express is proof that things weren't always this way.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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