The story of one of the great lost rock documentaries begins with a phone call from a member of Triumph, the Canadian power trio most notable for its uncanny resemblance to Spinal Tap. About six years ago, that band's singer and drummer, Gil Moore, phoned up Eddie Kramer, the producer and engineer with whom Triumph had recorded long after Kramer had become a legend for his work with, among others, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Moore informed Kramer that a man named Garth Douglas had tracked down the long-lost audio and video--some 80 hours' worth of footage, good Lord--from a little-known concert tour that had taken place in Canada at the end of June 1970. The footage included performances from the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and Janis Joplin, who would die but three months after the tour rolled into its final stop in Calgary.
The tour, a rumor to all but those who actually performed on it or saw one of the three concerts, had been called the Festival Express, the name bestowed upon it by a publicist named Frank Duckworth. According to Barney Hoskyns in his book Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, Duckworth had once worked on the railroad and imagined the tour as a way of reminding people "of the romance of traveling by train in the old days, when trains were still a vital form of communication, and to combine that with rock and roll, which is the most vital form of communication today." So Duckworth, and promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, gathered up several acts--from folkies Ian and Sylvia to the Gram Parsons-less Flying Burrito Brothers to, uh, Sha Na Na--and gave them free rein on a 17-car train that would travel from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary.
The Festival Express wasn't a totally underground railroad: Rolling Stone had assigned two writers to cover the event, David Dalton and Jonathan Cott, who would describe Joplin as "a Bacchanalian Little Red Riding Hood with her bag full of tequila and lemons, lurching from car to car like some tropical bird with streaming feathers." And only Joplin, they noted, "could have turned the Dead and other assorted heads into a bunch of 'Goodnight, Irene'-singing drunkards." Their dispatches made the event sound like the dreamy, feel-good convergence Woodstock would be remembered as, especially among those who didn't attend the concert. Kramer, who was there, is fond of calling Woodstock "three days of drugs and hell," and this from a man who recalls the event warmly.
Festival Express opens September 3 at the Angelika Film Center.
But the tour proved a bust, losing some $350,000 of Walker and Eaton's money after the Toronto show was crashed by protesters outraged at ticket prices (a whole 15 bucks) and the other two shows were pitifully attended by hundreds instead of the expected thousands upon thousands. There were lawsuits and threats, and the footage wound up first in a garage and then in cold storage in the Canadian national archives. When Kramer got to the materials, as raw as a fresh wound, they were out of order and out of sync, an unlabeled mishmash of 30-year-old memories long, long forgotten.
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"It was a turn-on, I have to tell you," Kramer says now when recalling the first time he saw the material that would become the rock doc Festival Express, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2003 and has begun rolling into theaters across the United States this summer. (It arrives in Dallas on September 3.) "This is a moment in time that will not occur again, as was Woodstock--a definitive moment in time. Woodstock had more impact, with half a million people being there and the news coverage and the dynamic performance by Hendrix and the making of history, etc. I was blown away, stunned. When you hear Janis singing at the top of her form, you go, 'Jeez, this is very special. Where the hell's this stuff been?'"
Kramer was charged with fixing the sound, which was a wreck, having been recorded by newbie filmmakers who had no experience capturing rock and roll on celluloid. For the visuals, and the narrative of these bands on this magical mystery tour by train, he brought in his old friend Bob Smeaton, with whom he'd worked on Hendrix documentaries; Smeaton's also beloved for directing The Beatles Anthology and for his work on the Classic Album Series of rockumentaries.
Smeaton built the film around the best onstage performances, which include The Band's "The Weight," the Dead's "Friend of the Devil," Buddy Guy's "Money" and Joplin's "Cry Baby," which she begins with a climactic wail (Crryyyyy...pause... baaaaaaaaby) and climbs up from there. He wanted to use whole performances, not snippets, and wound up with an initial cut that ran 10 hours. He wanted to make his own Woodstock, down to the split screen that makes this look like a 30-year-old movie and not something crisp and brand-new. Some performances didn't make the cut--most notably Traffic's 15-minute "Feeling Good," which Smeaton calls "mind-blowing"--simply because there were no accompanying visuals. Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" survived, over the final credits, because it's a landmark performance--the first time she ever performed the song with her band, long before it went to No. 1. But other immortal moments survive, chief among them Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia and Joplin woozily, cheerily jamming to "Ain't No More Cane," which is sort of the movie's spiritual centerpiece.
"When I was growing up, I used to see Woodstock and Gimme Shelter and Monterrey Pop," Smeaton says. "I got involved in making documentaries and thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could make something like that?' So when the opportunity arose, I thought it was great. It's almost like stepping back in time, like Marty McFly going back to the future almost and being able to make a movie that hopefully would stand alongside those great rock-and-roll movies."