Published: July 25, 2004

PHIL LESH sums up the convoluted story of the stirring new documentary “Festival Express” as follows: it is a tale, he says in the film, of “a train full of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day — and then occasionally we’d get off the train to go play a concert.”

Those “insane people” include the Grateful Dead (now known as the Dead, for which Mr. Lesh plays bass), Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie and the folk singers Eric Andersen and Ian and Sylvia — in other words, a smart, diverse cross-section of the popular music scene in 1970, when the Festival Express, 12 Canadian National train coaches leased by concert promoters, rolled for five days and some 2,100 miles across Canada, delivering performances in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, with a film crew in tow. The shows for the paying customers — and, this being 1970, rabble-rousing gate-crashers — were terrific, but the real action took place during the impromptu jam sessions and inebriated socializing on the train. The film, happily, captures it all.

So, since this event occurred well over three decades ago, why was the film, which opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, completed only last year? For one thing, conflicts plagued the project from the start. The concerts lost a great deal of money when political activists, angered by the killings at Kent State, organized boycotts and demonstrations at the concert sites, calling the $14 ticket price a rip-off. Fearing trouble, crowds stayed away.

“I found it ludicrous,” Ken Walker, who put together the festival, said in an interview. “They stormed my office one day and demanded free music, free dope, no `pigs’ and 10 percent of the profits — wherever that was supposed to come from. I threw one guy down the stairs and kicked him out into the street.”

In further proof that the era of peace and love didn’t always live up to its billing, once the tour ended, the promoters, the original filmmakers and various investors immediately began battling over the movie. Claims rattled around in the Canadian courts for years with little resolution, and the 60 or so hours of film ended up gradually being dispersed. Some ended up in the garage of one of the producers, and some was placed in boxes and dumped on the doorstep of the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, with a note explaining that the contents were a “national treasure.” The archives placed the boxes in a room, leaving the vast majority uncataloged.

In the early 90’s, as the old feuds faded and interest in the icons of classic rock surged, the notion of finally completing the film gathered momentum. The footage eventually was located, but its quality presented unforeseen problems, says Bob Smeaton, the director brought in to assemble “Festival Express” (his work on the “Beatles Anthology” television series earned him a Grammy in 1996). “A lot of it was out of focus,” he said, adding that Mountain, which was also on the tour, and Delaney and Bonnie had not even been filmed in performance.

“The cameramen had been imbibing as much as the musicians on the train,” he said. “And, you have to remember, it was 1970 — not many people had shot live bands before. It hadn’t been properly directed and set up, so when we tried to sync up the sound and the pictures, it just wouldn’t sync up.”

Needing to start somewhere, Mr. Smeaton concentrated on the songs that sounded best, and then tried to find the matching footage. “I knew that the musicians would make their decisions to participate based on what their performances sounded like,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody would say, `We don’t look very good,’ because, let’s face it, it was 30 years ago. We all looked better.”

“But it was like I was given a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the top,” he continued. “There were no guidelines. I’d be looking at the footage, going, `It looks like the Band might be playing “I Shall Be Released” there.’ ”

And then, of course, there was the issue of the participants’ increasingly unreliable memories. When Mr. Smeaton mentioned to Mr. Lesh that he was putting together “Festival Express,” Mr. Lesh responded: “Great! What are you using for footage?” He had no recollection that any cameras had been present on the train or at the shows.

To help sort out all the raw material at hand, Mr. Smeaton called on Peter Biziou, who was director of photography on the original shoot and who would go on to win an Academy Award for cinematography for “Mississippi Burning.” As the two men watched hilarious film of Janis Joplin, Rick Danko of the Band and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Dead drunkenly singing the old work song “Ain’t No More Cane,” Mr. Smeaton recalled, “Peter said, `Yeah, I shot this bit — I remember it like it was yesterday!’ But then the camera pans around and you see Peter sitting there watching them play. He was like, `Oh, maybe I didn’t film that.’ ”

Eventually Mr. Smeaton, working closely with Eddie Kramer, the music producer and engineer who mixed the film’s sound, overcame all these problems and assembled a taut, entertaining, 90-minute film. All the time that had passed, he said, ultimately worked to the film’s advantage. First, completing the movie would have been impossible without the technological advances that eventually enabled them to synchronize the images and sound, he said. In addition, he pointed out: “The Band, the Dead and Janis Joplin all played at Woodstock, but they never appeared in the film because they wouldn’t sign their rights away. No one had signed releases this time either. So if you tried to make the film in 1970, who would have been in it?”

Now, said Mr. Weir: “It’s a time capsule. It will tune you into what was happening back then. Those were different times — and they looked and sounded like it.” Indeed, they were. Improbable even in 1970, the idea of artists of this stature traveling from gig to gig on a train together with no handlers and providing virtually unlimited access to a film crew is inconceivable in today’s music industry — as is the artists’ personal engagement and generosity. When protesters threaten to disrupt the festival’s two-day show in Toronto, Garcia negotiates a deal by which the Dead and other performers agree to play for free each day in a nearby park.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Mr. Walker calls for an unscheduled stop in Saskatoon when the alcohol on the train runs out. After passing the hat, he and some helpers buy out the local liquor store, and the Festival Express rolls on. Given the prodigious levels of indulgence, it seems astonishing that the artists were able to perform at the shows with such energy. It turns to be not much of a mystery at all. “I traveled with a doctor, and I made sure that he had all the things necessary to have the acts able to perform,” Mr. Walker said. “If they were too high, we had whatever was necessary to bring them down. If they were too down, we had what we needed to bring them back up.”

The overall good vibes also helped the artists negotiate those peaks and valleys. The communal nature of the journey made the transition from the train to the public performances “like another stage of the rocket,” Mr. Andersen said: “There were no big ego trips. Everybody sent the next act out to raise the energy. It was very emotional, and when the trip ended, people were sad. We were all joking, `Let’s take the train to Haight Ashbury. Let’s take it to L.A. Let’s take it all over the world!’ ”

That sadness is apparent beneath the movie’s irresistible high spirits. “The stars of this movie are Rick Danko, Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia,” said Robbie Robertson, who performed with the Band at the festival’s concerts but missed the train ride because he was mixing the group’s album, “Stage Fright,” in New York. “They seemed to be leading the pack of madness. And it’s so sad that they’re not with us anymore. I saw the film as a tribute to their crazy spirit. There was a wonderful blindness, a beautiful innocence, to those times — anything seemed possible.

“I also thought,” he concluded, “that this may be the last of this kind of footage. I don’t know if anybody’s got another one of these in their basement. This may be it.”

Anthony DeCurtis is the executive editor of Tracks and a writer for Rolling Stone.



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