Screen: Wednesday, September 15, 2004
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Wacked-out hippie rock stars sounds great on paper. On video’s a different story.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Lack of Expression

A new rockumentary is heavy on wasted rock stars, light on any good stuff.

By BRIAN ABRAMS

For five days in 1970, a troupe of legendary popular musicians including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, and Buddy Guy traveled by locomotive across Canada, performing at stops along the way. Footage of the event was kept under wraps by the Canadian National Archive until recently, when a handful of American filmmakers won a wrestling match for the material and then produced Festival Express, directed by Bob Smeaton and distributed nationally by ThinkFilm. (It’s showing this weekend at Magnolia at the Modern.)

It sounds like a hippie’s dream: The Dead, Janis, The Band, rocking out all of their hits at the heights of their careers, with present-day commentary by concert promoter Ken Walker and music journalist David Dalton. Well, not to take anything away from classic rock fanatics, but the whole thing is just ... boring.

At a paltry 82 minutes, Festival Express goes on and on, with two lifetimes’ worth of handheld camera footage of rockers smoking, toking, and knocking back plenty of brown liquids. And, oh, yeah, playing a few tunes in between. It’s all just another reminder of how much fun it is to be a rock star all drunk and high — and how much not fun it is to watch a rock star be drunk and high.

The bands’ actual performances, however, are worth the price of admission. The Band is at the top of its game, and “The Weight” remains timeless, despite how many other million versions of it are out there already spinning on DVD. And the Dead proves that being high isn’t the only way to appreciate them. The poppy-bluegrass “Friend of the Devil” comes off especially well, even though it, like “The Weight,” exists on tons of concert videos. Ah, but if only Express offered more of this and less of people getting wasted. Director Smeaton, in pushing too hard for a trip down memory lane, turned this film instead into something more like a random night at the bar.

There is a local angle. Jim Colegrove (Great Speckled Bird) spent a couple of nights on the train. His recollections, unfortunately, give way more thrills than the blasé camera work of cinematographers Bob Fiore and Oscar winner Peter Biziou (Mississippi Burning). Listening to him, you wonder, “Where were the cameras while all of these stories were happening?” One particular moment involved Janis Joplin and a reporter in the dining car. “Janis told [the reporter] she’d talk to him, but he couldn’t take any pictures,” according to Colegrove. “Just as the writer was leaving, she wheeled around and exploded at the guy, accusing him of snapping a picture on the sly.”

What could have been a series of juicy soap opera moments in rock history has mostly been lost, and despite the highs on screen, the results are stone-cold sober on-screen. The audience may begin head-nodding — not to the music but to sleep.


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