Not too long ago, I decided to go to New York City on vacation. Instead of doing the traditional thing and flying in, I instead took a nearly day-long train trip across much of the country - there and back. While this likely doesn't sound appealing to most, I found it to be a wonderfully memorable experience, seeing beautiful and historic sights in places in the United States that I would not have seen otherwise. The length of time was a little rough, but it was a pleasure and an adventure that I greatly enjoyed.
I was pleased to find "Festival Express", a concert documentary of a touring festival that I'd never heard of before. In 1970, a group of bands - including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band and many others, including Buddy Guy - steamrolled across Canada in a specially-designed train that held both bands and all their gear.
While the documentary focuses on the performances - the train would stop and everyone and everything would pile out to play at a venue - there are also a lot of other tidbits of great interest. The documentary allows access to the bands on the train, who rolled forward with alcohol (the train had to make an emergency stop because the bands had drank till the train was dry) and whatever else in tow, fueling a lot of fascinating conversations and on-train performances that lasted long into the nights. The bands loved it as well, sharing space with a lot of other musicians they admired. When the train was reserved by the promoters, they spared no expense - they wanted the bands touring to feel as if they were on the Orient Express - if they wanted food in the middle of the night, it would be prepared for them.
However, the festival faced serious problems. Protest groups looking to clash with police caused trouble for the promoters, resulting in serious lost revenue. People were upset that they had to pay a bit over ten bucks a ticket (I wanted to see R.E.M. recently, until I noticed that the ticket price for good seats was nearly $75, and that's before probably three different service charges). Some rioting even occured, much to the dismay of the bands, the promoters and the authorities.
Again, the film does focus a lot on the performances (which are superbly shot) - "Festival Express" lets the songs play out completely - but the interviews with the promoters and surviving band members are quite interesting. Throughout, we get a lot of insights into a traveling epic journey of music that remains a legendary experience, despite the obstacles it faced as it rolled along the rails.
Note: After the tour was over in 1970, conflicts between the promoters and the filmmakers resulted in the film elements becoming scattered and the film itself not completed. After a while, the elements of the film that were able to be found were gathered and put in the Canadian National Archives, where they proceeded to sit for 25 years, largely forgotten. When the film was recovered, it took years to complete, work with the audio and secure performance rights. Performances in the film include Buddy Guy's "Money", Janis Jopin playing "Cry Baby" (among other songs), The Band's "The Weight", Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" (among others) and more.
VIDEO: "Festival Express" is presented by New Line Home Entertainment in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is generally excellent, considering the film is nearly 35-years-old and was shot on 16mm. Sharpness and detail are often good, as the picture appeared moderately well-defined and crisp a good deal of the time. However, things could vary based upon shooting conditions, with some sequences looking rather soft, but certainly not terribly so. According to the website, the filmmakers did not want the film to appear too cleaned up and modern, retaining the original feel of the documentary.
Aside from the softness, the picture really didn't run into any other problems. The amount of grain varied throughout, but was generally light-to-moderate (some of the sequences on the train displayed the most grain.) The grain was not distracting and the picture was not grainer than one would expect, given the film stock and age. The picture really didn't suffer from any print flaws - a couple of specks popped up at times, but really, they were hardly an issue. No pixelation or edge enhancement were noticed. Colors looked natural and bright, with nice saturation and no issues.
A visible layer change occured at 1:07:46.
SOUND: "Festival Express" is presented by New Line in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The film's soundtrack is very satisfying; while it could use a bit more reinforcement by the surrounds during some of the musical sequences, it's largely pleasing in terms of activity. The audio during the performances is spread quite nicely across the front speakers, with some minor/mild reinforcement of the music by the rear speakers. Audio quality was very good, as dialogue and interviews sounded crisp and fairly well-recorded. Musical performances sounded stellar, as the instrumentals and vocals remained distinct and clear. The overall sound, while not up to the quality of a modern production, was full, warm and very enjoyable. The DTS soundtrack seemed slightly better than the Dolby Digital counterpart, as it sounded somewhat more dynamic and clean.
EXTRAS: The main supplement on the first disc is a series of bonus performances that runs for a little under 50 minutes. Performances include Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin and others ("Thirteen Questions", "Child's Song", "Thirsty Boots", "As Tears Go By", "Tears of Rage", "Hoochie Coochie Man", "Hard To Handle", "Easy Wind", "Movie Over", "Kozmic Blues". These deleted performance scenes are also presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1.
The first disc also includes the option to jump to a performance in the film.
The first feature on the second disc is a series of nearly 20-minutes of extended interviews. The second disc's main feature, however, is "Derailed", which is a "making of" documentary on the film. The feature talks a lot about how the film came together after all these years, including trying to assemble the footage, remixing the soundtrack for 5.1 and the obstacles that came along with that, as well as thoughts on assembling the film and the final result.
We also get a photo gallery and the trailer.
Final Thoughts: "Festival Express" is a marvelous documentary that focuses on the amazing festival that joined together a group of phenomenal musicians on a rail journey across Canada. My only complaint is that, at 90 minutes, the film seems a tad short - I could have sat through more performance and interview footage. New Line's DVD edition offers very good audio/video quality, along with a few good supplements. A definite recommendation.