Judge Erich Asperschlager is an American folk standard.
"This train is bound for glory."
In the Spring of 2011, sympatico folk-rock and old-time musical acts Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros boarded a vintage train in Oakland California and set off across the country on the six-city "Railroad Revival Tour." They brought along documentary filmmaker Emmett Malloy, whose credits include the surfing film Thicker Than Water and the White Stripes' tour movie Under Great Northern Lights. For eight full days, Malloy and his crew filmed the bands on-stage, on the train, and everywhere in between, capturing a wealth of music and gorgeous landscapes for the engaging documentary Big Easy Express, now available on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Big Easy Express is a musical journey across America with musicians who share a sensibility rather than a nationality. British natives Mumford & Sons, Nashville's Old Crow Medicine Show, and California-based Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play through a collection of standards and hits including "Sigh No More," "Wagon Wheel," and "Home."
Although Big Easy Express clocks in at a mere 67 minutes, it is a packed hour-and-change. The combined 20-some musicians play nonstop—an honest reflection of the party atmosphere on board the train, where the end of the night's show meant the beginning of a jam session that lasted until sunrise. As Malloy explains in the included interview, his cameramen would have to take turns filming the musicians through the night because they kept falling asleep at the camera.
The film celebrates folk music and the American landscape without fetishizing either. The occasional voice-over narration is poetic, but not pretentious. Even when Edward Sharpe frontman Alex Ebert says "we're playing music…with the country…to see it the way they saw it…when we were all children," there is no pretense, only poetry. These musicians can't help but play together, with whatever instruments are at hand.
Big Easy Express combines concert footage with interviews, group jams, and breathtaking American scenery. Add in the occasional switch to grainy black & white footage, and it feels like Rattle and Hum updated for modern audiences. There's even a scene where Mumford & Sons play "The Cave" with the Austin High School marching band. It's not quite "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" sung by a gospel choir, but it sure is fun. The film builds to an epic full group jam in New Orleans on the Woody Guthrie classic "This Train is Bound for Glory."
This is a music documentary in the purest sense. We don't learn anything about the individual musicians, except how much they love to play music. Lots of music. It helps to be fans of these bands, but it's not necessary. Before Big Easy Express, I was only familiar with Mumford & Sons. Now, I'm clamoring for more from all of the bands. They're that good.
On Blu-ray, the Big Easy Express sports a 1.78:1 1080p transfer that captures the film in all its glory and limitations. Malloy appears to have employed a catch-as-catch-can style. Some of the footage looks incredibly sharp and gorgeous. Other scenes look good with minor grain. Still other sequences are incredibly noisy, especially those shot at night, or filmed in black and white. It all works from a road movie perspective, but it's hard to justify the decision to go hi-def based purely on visuals. For that justification, look to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. While the mix is light on surround effects, the lossless audio track sounds fantastic, especially considering that all the music is recorded live, and much of it is improvised. The audio also comes in a lossless 2.0 PCM Stereo track that's just as good.
The Big Easy Express isn't a long film, but it's still impressive that the bonus features add fifty percent to the runtime. Although it's a short list, the extras include almost half an hour of deleted scenes, made up of seven additional songs: "A Million Years" performed solo by Alex Ebert; "Hard to Tell," a live Old Crow performance; "Awake My Soul" played by Mumford & Sons; "Fiya Wata," performed by Jade Castrinos and part of the Magnetic Zeros; "Take 'Em Away," a group session on the train; "Child," which pairs Edward Sharpe with Marcus Mumford; and "Janglin'" by Edward Sharpe and a young audience member. The disc also includes a five-minute interview with Emmett Malloy backstage at the movie premiere in Texas, and a gallery of 18 photographs from Malloy's collection. Finally, although it doesn't technically count as an extra, the menu also includes the ability to jump to any song in the film.
Big Easy Express isn't going to appeal to everyone, but the documentary more than makes up for its niche status by being so darn much fun. Even if you aren't the biggest fan of the bands here, it's worth checking out if you're a fan of music in general. Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show are infectious, and Emmett Mallory captures every glorious note.
A (Big) Easy recommendation. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Alliance Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
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