Judge Clark Douglas wants to ride this train a little longer.
Our review of Festival Express, published December 20th, 2004, is also available.
The longest party in rock n' roll history.
In the summer of 1970, a host of flower power musicians joined forces and embarked on a groundbreaking tour. Traveling by rail across Canada, Festival Express brought the likes of Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band and many more to eager concertgoers. A good deal of footage was shot at the time for a documentary, but the film was shelved after the festival proved financially disastrous. Decades later, the footage was recovered and put to good use: Festival Express premiered to widespread critical acclaim in 2003. Now that same documentary is presented in HD for your viewing/listening pleasure. Is the trip still worth taking? Absolutely.
To some degree, Festival Express is a fascinating snapshot of an era that tonally lands somewhere between the free love exuberance of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival and the tense violence of The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter. There's a great deal of love and unity between the band members traveling together, and the performers are generally able to form a warm bond with the crowds they encounter. Even so, technical difficulties and political disagreements (including, um, a handful of protesters who insist that these musicians ought to be playing for free) occasionally threaten to ruin the proceedings. There's a great early scene in which Jerry Garcia attempts to placate an angry mob: his speech doesn't seem to make much of an impact, but everybody quiets down once he starts playing a song.
However, scenes of social relevance tend to be few and far between. The chief pleasures of Festival Express are the terrific music and the scenes of various rock n' roll legends relaxing together. Between shows, the many musicians on the train would form never-ending jam sessions, with various participants rotating in and out as the hours passed by ("It was hard to get any sleep," one musician wearily recalls). It's a bittersweet thing to see Janis Joplin looking so joyful and content during the final year of her life, and to see the members of The Band demonstrating such camaraderie while knowing that they'll eventually go through a bitter break-up.
The primary focus of the documentary is the music—enough to call it a "concert film," honestly—and it's most enjoyable. While the assorted live settings don't always allow for the most dynamic sound, the performances themselves are generally quite strong. Here's what we get…
"Don't Ease Me In"—Grateful Dead
Festival Express (Blu-ray) has received a stellar 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that does what it can with the grungy source material. The new interview clips look good, but the original material has a very gritty, grainy look (it was shot on 16 mm, so that's to be expected). This is by no means a showcase for your HDTV, but it looks about as good as it's ever likely to. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio mix does what it can with the material, too, but the fuzziness of some of the music is always going to be there given the conditions in which it was recorded. Dialogue tends to be clean and clear. Supplements are fairly generous: a wide selection of bonus performances, a making-of featurette, a half-hour of additional interviews and a trailer. Not too shabby, though all of these extras were included on the original DVD release.
If you missed it the first time around, Festival Express is an exceptional little concert doc that captures one of the more unique festivals of the era. The Blu-ray release doesn't offer much of an upgrade from the DVD, but it gets the job done.
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