Screened as part of NZIFF 2004
Kept out of sight by 30 years of legal wrangling – considering the talent on display, you bet there were wrangles – Festival Express is the last great rockumentary of the 60s, shot in 1970, featuring Janis Joplin, The Band, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers and many more. Between gigs the musicians partied across Canada in a rented train, never too stoned to perform for each other or the ubiquitous camera. Meanwhile, pre-Napster audiences protested at the ticket price ($14 for two days and 20 bands), demanded free music and repaid the star-struck, amazingly profligate promoters with bankruptcy. The concert performances are potent, the Dolby Digital is pumping, the on-train jams are enthrallingly all-over-the-show. Cut into fine shape by Beatles Anthology director Bob Smeaton, the rescued footage is flecked with entertaining hindsight from surviving veterans.
The holy grail of classic-rock docs. Festival Express presented the long-lost footage of the summer 1970 Woodstock on wheels, a money-hemorrhaging bacchanal in which the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, and a half-dozen other bands took a chartered train across Canada, stopping only for a series of riotous concerts – or to replenish the booze supply. The on-train jams are fascinating, and given the financial disaster, Buddy Guy’s cool yelping version of ‘Money’ is wonderfully appropriate. Nevertheless, one waits for Joplin, who, several months from eternity, uncorks a performance of ‘Cry Baby’ for the ages – by far the most vivid evidence of her presence ever committed to film. — J. Hoberman, Village Voice