Festival Express
New Line // R // $24.98 // November 2, 2004
Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 17, 2004
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Climbing on board the Festival Express in 1970 would have been a dream come true for fans of classic rock. For the unfamiliar, the item in question was a massive, customized train that packed some of the era's most popular and respected musicians together during a five-day tour of Canada. Passengers included The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, tons of other performers and, of course, all of their respective gear.

Although I'll admit that bands like The Dead and Janis Joplin aren't exactly my musical cup of tea, they're legends in the eyes of many music lovers. Through their collective love of performance, it's easy to see why these folks were so successful in their time (and some are more popular now than ever). The Canadian concert venues are filled to the brim with fans who paid more than they really needed to for tickets, resulting in small-scale riots on several unfortunate occasions. Hey, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In addition to a nice little chunk of performance footage, though, we're also treated to a slice of life on the road (or is it "on the tracks?"). Director Bob Smeaton was lucky enough to be along for the ride, capturing countless hours of footage on the train, on stage, and great moments in between. On the road, the highly-regarded musicians talked, drank, ate, played music, drank, watched the trees go by, and drank some more. More than just a successful tour, it was a rare occasion where some of classic rock's finest were able to spend some quality time together.

As a documentary, Smeaton's Festival Express does a great job of keeping things organized. Through an interesting combination of tour footage and modern interviews, he's created an interesting portrait of an interesting subject...and that's all than any documentary needs to be successful. Throughout the film's 90-minute running time and a block of additional DVD material, we see a much younger Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin burning closer to her unfortunate death, and a few remaining contributors in recent times. Also interesting is the film's troubled history---dating back to the end of the concert in 1970---when rights issues all but destroyed any hope of the film seeing the light of day. Roughly three and a half decades later, the finished version of Festival Express has been carefully assembled for our viewing enjoyment. It's a terrible shame that this rare footage was hidden away for so many years, but it makes the end result that much more fascinating.

For fans of classic rock, Festival Express is an interesting film that you'll really enjoy. Even if the artists involved aren't your all-time favorite, this vintage look at one of the music world's most unique tours is worth the price of admission. Although I'd have liked to see an even more in-depth amount of footage (which is included on this release, albeit in a very small portion), it's hard to complain with what we're getting here. New Line has seen fit to release this important documentary as a 2-disc Special Edition, and it's well-rounded effort that'll leave you wanting more. Even though the technical presentation could have been a little better and there's still a lot of footage hidden away, this is a solid release you'll want to hunt down. With that said, let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality:

Originally shot on 16mm film, Festival Express is every bit a raw and rugged documentary. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks pleasing for the most part, although it's quite obvious that some scenes look far superior to others. Word has it that the filmmakers chose not to fully restore most of the footage---and I respect their decision to do so---but most of it could look quite a bit better than it does here. The lack of a more complete visual restoration just seems a little strange, especially given the film's remixed audio treatment. In any case, this is still a decent-looking film, offering a pleasing color palette, good contrast and generally deep black levels. Obviously, the vintage 16mm footage is loaded with grain, but this is a source material issue and doesn't distract terribly from the film.

As mentioned above, Festival Express offers several audio mixes to choose from: Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround, 5.1 Surround, and the always-welcome DTS. Although I sampled each during playback, the DTS mix offers a definite edge in overall clarity and atmosphere. While it doesn't add a great deal to the behind-the-scenes footage, it really opens up the concert footage nicely. Although it's not up to the level of, say, Criterion's excellent DTS remix of The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, it's a terrific audio mix that puts you right in the middle of the action.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:

Seen above, the fullscreen menu designs are nicely rendered, conveying the film's mood nicely. Navigation is smooth and simple on both discs, right down to the special features sub-menu and chapter selection screens. The 90-minute film has been divided into a generous 26 chapters, and a layer change was detected near the 68-minute mark. Packaging is nicely designed but a little redundant---while I can't complain about the composition choice, it's repeated for both discs' artwork and the included chapter insert. English and Spanish subtitles are included for the deaf, hard of hearing, and English-impaired.

Bonus Features:

I was hoping for a meaty assortment of lost footage and tons of other goodies, but I'll have to admit that this 2-disc set left me a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong: it's a nice mix of stuff, but most fans of the film know that there's much more stuff locked away in the vault. The dozens of hours of unused footage from the Festival Express Tour could've easily filled an expansive boxed set...but hey, let's focus on what we do get. Disc One kicks things off with 48 minutes of Deleted Scenes & Performances from the previously-mentioned mountain of unused footage. This never-before-seen material includes performances by Buddy Guy, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and more, and is essential viewing for hardcore fans. It's easily the highlight of the extras, although it's a shame more footage couldn't have been included. Also on this first disc is a useful Train Hopping feature, allowing viewers to jump to their favorite performances.

Disc Two is a little less spectacular, though I enjoyed The Making of Festival Express. This short documentary is very interesting from a historical perspective, especially given the window between the original footage and the "finished product". This piece also briefly touches on the restoration of the footage, though it would have been even better to hear a more comprehensive, feature-length commentary. Next up is a series of Additional Interviews with a few of the remaining contributors, running just shy of 30 minutes. Also here is a Photo Gallery (although I'd have preferred larger, uncropped pictures) and the film's Theatrical Trailer. Again, not a bad mix of bonus material here by any means; but it's still pretty thin, all things considered.

Final Thoughts

This 2-disc set is hardly as monumental as the original Festival Express Tour, but it should be of much interest to music lovers. The film itself provides an terrific blend of vintage concert footage, classic behind-the-scenes material and new interviews that offer a great historical perspective. While New Line's Special Edition could have included a cleaner visual presentation and many more bonus features, it's still a solid release well worth hunting down. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is a music-lovin' art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.

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