Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Festival Express

(UK/Netherlands, 2003)

This film is like opening King Tut’s tomb. Talk about ancient history. In 1970, or 4000 BC, take your pick, a couple young promoters organized a train trip across Canada with some popular rockers of the time. We’re talking The Band, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ian & Sylvia, and others. They were immediately besieged by a lot of baby anarchists who were enchanted with the idea that “the music should be free,” that “it belongs to the people.” Sound familiar? It’s exactly what illegal downloaders say to justify their thefts. Hey, Woodstock was free, right? Anyway, the project ran out of money very soon, but the promoters kept it going, even making a special stop in Alberta to get more liquor when the musicians drank the train dry. But when it was all over, they didn’t have the money to make the film they had intended, so a whole lot of footage sat in obscure vaults for 34 years.

Now somebody has excavated it, blown off the dust of centuries, and made it into a 90-minute film, all of it never seen before. As a film, it is inferior to {Monterrey Pop}} or Woodstock, there was a bit too much concentration on the crowds and the train tracks for my taste, though it was weird to think this all literally came out of a time capsule … but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. If you love Rock and Roll, you have to see this movie. If you were there for any part of that crazy time, you have to see it even more.

Part of it is the jamming and partying among the musicians that happened virtually 24 hours a day on the train. It is astonishing. Most of the participants said it was the most fun they ever had making music. These were people who were still relatively new to their giant fame, and as we all know some of them handled it better than others. Lee, who knows rock history a lot better than I do, kept pointing out people who are now dead. Sure, I know about Janis and Garcia, but the sheer number of other casualties was appalling.

The other part is the concerts themselves, and it is very, very good. There’s Jerry Garcia at what I think was the peak of his talents, there’s Robbie Robertson looking oddly professorial, there is Levon Helm singing “The Weight,” there is Richard Manuel (hung himself in a motel bathroom, according to Lee) singing “I Shall Be Released” with the rest of The Band, there is Sylvia outdoing herself with a pick-up group of some of the best talents of the day on “CC Rider.”

But most of all there is Janis. She does two numbers: “Cry, Baby,” and “Tell Mama.” And I found myself wondering again, has there ever been a performer who gave more of herself in performance than Janis Joplin? Is there anyone else in the universe who can make James Brown and Joe Cocker look like Perry Como? J. Hoberman of The Village Voice had this to say of her performance: “Starting with the scream on which a more conservative singer would climax, and then pushing herself to the far side of coherence, our Janis delivers an astonishingly wrenching and immediate performance. The most vivid evidence of her presence ever committed to film, it should re-ignite the age-old question: Was this doomed Port Arthur flower child the psychedelic Judy Garland or the greatest white soul-singer of all time?” To which I would add, How did she learn to sing like that in Port Arthur??? Where did it come from? Wrenched from the bottom of her soul, as far as I can tell. A soul tortured by Port Arthur (which is a shithole, take it from me, I spent a lot of time there), and tormented by sub-humans like the University of Texas frat boys who once voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” And once again I ask myself, What would she have done if she’d lived? Or is that a stupid question? Did that intensity have to burn itself out as hard and fast as she did? Was it inevitable?

I wish I knew. Meantime, I can treasure the work she left behind, and Festival Express is a welcome addition.