Friday, July 16, 2004

Sorry to have been slacking off (again) about blogging the premiere..Still boxing stuff up and all that-
to tide you over
here's a review from The Marin Independent Journal-



'Festival Express' documents one wild ride

By Paul Liberatore, IJ senior feature writer

I KNEW "FESTIVAL Express" was something extraordinary when I was at the movies a couple of times recently and felt the excitement, the outright commotion, that the long-lost rock documentary sparked when its trailer came onto the screen.

On both occasions, the theaters were packed with Marin people waiting for the regular feature to start. When the quick preview for "Festival Express" showed a clip of Janis Joplin onstage in all her outrageous glory, kicking into the opening bars of "Cry Baby," the audience erupted, rumbling and whooping and buzzing like it had just been zapped with a jolt of electricity. And it had.

Shot in 1970, two months before Joplin's death of a drug overdose, her sequences are galvanizing. For someone like me who never got to see her in real life, this movie is the next best thing - about as close as I'm going to get.

And that's not even the half of it. The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia is slim, exuberant, beaming, 28 years old, in the prime of his life. "We were happy, man," he says near the end of the film, a crazed cinema verit chronicle of an alcohol-fueled concert tour/ bachanal/train trip across Canada with Joplin, the Dead, the Band, Buddy Guy, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Traffic, Delaney and Bonnie, Sha Na Na, Ian and Sylvia and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

"This was really sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," the Dead's Mickey Hart, 60, told me before a screening this week. "It couldn't have been better when you're a kid of 20. We'd never done anything like this before, we never did it again and we sure couldn't do it now."

Thirty-four years after the fact, "Festival Express" had its theatrical premiere Monday night at the UA Galaxy in San Francisco for an audience that amounted to a who's who of the city's erstwhile psychedelic music scene.

"This is the film's spiritual home," Grammy-winning British director Bob Smeaton told the crowd before the show, referring to the Bay Area bands that play a prominent role in this historic piece of rock archeology. And Canadian producer Gavin Poolman said it was "a dream of ours to show this film in San Francisco."

Over the years, musician acquaintances of mine who had been on this mythic journey had spoken dreamily of it as one of the greatest experiences of their careers. But I never could quite understand what all the fuss was about. Now I get it.

For five days, a motley crew of great rock musicians clacked across Canada aboard a luxury train modeled on the Orient Express. The Disoriented Express would have been more like it. In Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg, they stopped to play big outdoor concerts for crowds of unruly fans. The rest of the time, they were all aboard the train, mixing it up in comfortably close quarters, drinking, jamming and partying as if they knew intuitively that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

"I was playing with heroes of mine daily, nightly and inbetweenly," the Dead's Bob Weir, 56 and bearded, wearing a coat and tie, said as we chatted on the red carpet before the premiere. "This film is one of the few documents of our past. It's fun to relive that time."

It's a minor miracle that this documentary ever made it to the screen at all. The camera operators were so stoned that they often couldn't keep their shots in focus, when they remembered to shoot at all. The festival promoters lost money and couldn't pay them all they were owed, so they walked off with valuable footage, holding it hostage for unpaid wages.

But film cans of work prints stored in the original producer's garage somehow survived Canadian winters, a fire and the unwitting abuse of kids who used them as hockey goals. Fortunately, a young man involved in the production managed to round up all the reels he could find, taking them to the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, where they sat perfectly preserved for 25 years.

To make a long story short, the project was revived a decade or so ago, but $1 million had to be raised to buy the rights. Old footage was given context by contemporary interviews with musicians and others who were there. Using digital technology, the images and sound were magically cleaned up and synched.

Smeaton, 40, who won Grammys for the "Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies" documentary and for "The Beatles Anthology" TV series, was brought in to direct. He was only 6 years old when the footage was shot, but he had long admired classic rock documentaries such as "Woodstock" and "Monterey Pop" and wanted this film to look like them, true to its period.

"It's not the slickest movie in the world," he admitted. "But it's an important document."

What strikes me about this film is the youthful joy, the camaraderie and the pure love of music that it allows us to witness with unblinking intimacy, both on the stage and in the endless jams that went on in the various cars on the train devoted to blues, country and rock.

In one priceless scene, the Band's Rick Danko sings the traditional song "Ain't No More Cane" in a drunken duet with a cackling Janis Joplin. A bemused Garcia supplies guitar accompaniment, and at the end of the song, in the documentary's sweetest "awww" moment, Garcia says, "Janis, I've loved you from the first day I saw you."

The film's running joke involves alcohol as the drug of non-choice. Because of the risk involved in trying to smuggle marijuana across the border into Canada, booze was the only way to get high.

"That was a new experience for a lot of us," Weir said. "The problem was that we weren't drinkers," Hart added.

But they got the hang of it, quickly draining the bar car and having to make an unscheduled stop to buy out the entire stock of a liquor store in Saskatoon. Someone in the Grateful Dead's entourage laced the whisky with LSD, and the party roared on.

"We were screaming across Canada on electrified Johnny Walker," Hart recalled.

Despite the debauchery, the musicians were admirably responsible. When out-of-control kids demanded to be let into a concert for free, Garcia was the voice of reason, taking the microphone and pleading for "a half hour of coolness." The Dead then played a free concert in a nearby park. His leadership is in striking contrast to the deified, distant Garcia of his last years, so worried about inadvertently causing an unbalanced Deadhead to do something stupid that he never dared to speak to the audience at all.

In another scene on the train, a baby-faced Weir is indignant over the beating of a Canadian police officer who had his head cracked open by gatecrashers who didn't feel they should have to buy a $16 ticket. "Is $16 worth nearly killing some person?" he asked angrily.

All these years later, he's still bothered by it. "I don't know if that cop ever came back together," he told me at a party at the Great American Music Hall after the screening. "That upset me greatly."

Musically, the Dead, with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on harmonica, played crisp acoustic renditions of "Don't Ease Me In," "Friend of the Devil" and "New Speedway Boogie." Fittingly, the film opens with them doing "Casey Jones."

"We sounded a lot better than we had a right to sound and we looked a lot better than we had a right to look," Weir confessed.

He may have made the most profound remark of all when he said in the film that this brief window of unreality represented "the prospect for music to become more than entertainment or a diversion."

It seems that for those involved, the Festival Express was a rock 'n' roll religious ceremony on rails. And the music they shared with each other, and now with us, was its sacrament.