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New Line Home Cinema presents
Festival Express (2004)

"It was a train full of insane people, careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day. And occasionally we'd get off the train and go play a concert."
- Phil Lesh, of the Grateful Dead

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: November 03, 2004

Stars: Janis Joplin, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Buddy Guy, Sha Na Na, The Band
Director: Bob Smeaton

MPAA Rating: R for some language
Run Time: 01h:28m:48s
Release Date: November 02, 2004
UPC: 794043757327
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B-A B-

DVD Review

What's the point of having an all-star rock concert if you don't film it? In the spirit of Woodstock, which preceded it, Festival Express was a barnstorming train full of rock musicians in 1970, heading west across Canada, stopping at most major cities north of the border for concerts; the participants included some legends of rock, among them the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. This movie is part travelogue, part reminiscence, but mostly a concert film, recording a trip across the continent that seems to have been a hell of a time.

Intercut with the period footage are clips from more recent interviews, of participants in the festival remembering it, all fondly and nostalgically. Chief among them is Ken Walker, the principal promoter, who put together a show of headliners, and got a lot of headaches for his efforts—in the spirit of the time, crowds in Toronto and elsewhere decided that the music should be free, man, and the pigs were holding them back. It's sort of funny to see the rebellious spirits of '60s rock taking a business stand; I wouldn't say that they're selling out, but even rebels like Jerry Garcia know that somebody's got to pay for food and (especially) drink. Lots of the time on the train was spent in jam sessions, and the camera crew records a good number of them for us; they're fine in bits and pieces, but generally a good jam session is a great time principally for those who are participating, and not that much fun to listen to. Also, I can't help but think that after a couple of days of this, I'd be dirty and stir crazy and bored; but the musicians literally drink the train dry and they need to make a stop to refuel with liquor; alcohol and other pharmaceuticals may help to make personal hygiene less of a priority.

The best reason to watch this, of course, is for the music, and there's some great stuff here. The Band sounds great, particularly on Slippin' and Slidin'; they do an inspired version of The Weight, as well, one that's not as pretty and polished as the version in The Last Waltz, but this may be a more accurate rendering of their live concerts. Janis Joplin isn't really doing her A material, but she can still rip it up, especially on Cry Baby; some of the most fun stuff here is seeing her clown with Jerry Garcia (she tells him: "I loved ya since the day I saw ya"), and it's hard not to reflect on how many of those on this tour are gone now.

Buddy Guy is very strong on Money (that's what he wants), but more puzzling is the inclusion of Sha Na Na—their throwback doo-wop style is from another time and place, and they seem like sort of a joke here. Some of the film is edited together Woodstock-style, with two and three images across the screen simultaneously; it feels a little too imposed, and the movie is at its best when the musicians are up there doing their thing, and the camera is rolling, and the sound is cranked up for you at home.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The period footage is grainy and ragged; it's in sharp contrast to the new interviews, but the transfer to DVD is pretty solid, a good job on material that hasn't been treated with kid gloves over the decades.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Well, given that the music is the reason to check out this title, it's good to be able to report that it sounds really solid. Dispersal in the 5.1 track is particularly atmospheric and impressive; on all the available audio options, there's some of the noise and static that comes with a concert film, but most of the time this will be, literally, music to your ears.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
10 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. photo gallery
  2. DVD credits
Extras Review: Disc 1 features an option called Train Hopping, which allows you to jump around from song to song, and skip over the rest of the documentary footage; after you've watched this once, that's probably what you'll want to do. You'll also find ten bonus performances on this disc, accessible either with brief introductory comments from participants (57m:19s) or without them (48m:18s); highlights here include two more Joplin songs, two more Dead songs, and Buddy Guy on Hoochie Coochie Man.

Pop in Disc 2 and you'll find additional interviews (19m:15s), featuring some of the musicians and Ken Walker, the promoter, with stories from the road and on the genesis of the undertaking; and Derailed: The Making of Festival Express (14m:15s), featuring Willem Poolman, the producer of the original footage. There's also a photo gallery of twenty images from the festival, an original trailer, and DVD credits, which you'll find by clicking on the New Line logo.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Unfamiliar concert footage makes Festival Express worth a listen and a look for fans of this great age of rock and roll—if you're into the Dead, or the Band, or Janis Joplin (and if you're not, you should be), there are all kinds of reasons to tune in and turn on here. Rock on.


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