In 1970, a bunch of popular stoner funky folk bands got together, rented a train, and zipped across Canada, playing mini-Woodstocks along the way.
The name of the train was the Festival Express, and filmmaker Bob Smeaton was on hand to film it [er, or not -- see below].
Thirty-three years later, Smeaton finished up his movie, with new interviews with those who were there (mainly security guys, promoters, and the like). And that's sort of the problem with Festival Express: Its brief glimpses of music by The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, and several lesser known acts (the bizarre appearance of ShaNaNa notwithstanding), make you wish for something more substantial. The cursory treatment of 1970s social problems has been far more fully explored in films like Gimme Shelter (which also came out in 1970) and, of course, Woodstock -- and both of them had a lot more music. Even The Band earned a film of its very own in The Last Waltz, and both The Dead and Joplin have a multitude of concert films to their name. Not to mention: Since Jerry Garcia, Joplin, and most of the rest of the rockers of the era are dead, commentary from their camp is extremely limited. Festival Express ultimately feels a little like warm leftovers.
On the bright side, the film does have some great acts and unique performances -- perhaps the best being the aforementioned ShaNaNa oddity -- and fans of '70s rock will eat this movie up. Smeaton serves up a momentous amount of extras on the film's DVD, which adds a whole second disc. The package includes 50 extra minutes of concert footage not in the original film, a making-of film, and a handful of extended interviews.
Producer Gavin Poolman responds:Thanks for your review of Festival Express - shame you didn't like it as much as everyone else seems to have done. Thought you might be interested to know it was a deliberate choice to avoid delving into the social issues of the time, as what we were really wanted to convey was what it might have been like to ride that train (which is why we used the Sha Na Na sequence: during their performance, we see Delaney & Bonnie, the Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia, etc. dancing along in the audience - something that would be impossible today). As you rightly point out, both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are rather decent explorations of 1960s social problems, and we saw no reason to duplicate their efforts. Our film very consciously focuses on the experiences of the musicians themselves, and from this standpoint at least, I think we've achieved something rather special.
By the way, our director Bob Smeaton was not on the train (he would have been 7 years old, as he was born in 1963).