Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and
Altamont music festivals are all landmarks of popular music history.
Each of these events was immortalised in a feature-length documentary
film ("Monterey Pop,"
"Gimme Shelter") not
long after it took place. However, the Festival Express, which toured
Canada on a specially equipped Canadian National (CN) train in the
summer of 1970, has faded into undeserved obscurity. Professional
cameramen and audio engineers documented the concerts on film and
audiotape, but a number of factors conspired to ensure that this superb
material would languish in storage for three decades.
There is a
long complicated explanation as to why it took almost thirty-five years
for the film to reach the big screen. Suffice it to say, the short
version involves two film producers with different visions of the final
product, lawyers, a car chase, a bankruptcy, a food locker, a national
film archive, plus lots and lots of money.
premiered in September 2003 at the
International Film Festival and it was subsequently screened at
other film festivals, including Rotterdam, Nashville, and San Francisco.
Producers Gavin Poolman and John Trapman worked with British director
Bob Smeaton (who
created the Beatles Anthology) and audio wizard Eddie Kramer to restore
the reputation of this landmark Canadian musical event. In the process,
they have created an instant classic by rescuing the original 16mm
footage, and adding interviews with some of the participants - those who
are still with us. To quote Neil Young (who was not on the Festival
Express train), it’s the “needle and the damage done” territory when it
comes to late1960s/early 1970s rock and roll figures. The headliners
were Janis Joplin,
The Band and
The Grateful Dead. The
DVD was recently released, and it contains many more acts who were
not seen in the theatrical release.
The idea of
taking a train load of rock musicians across the country was the
inspiration of Ken Walker, a 24-year-old commerce graduate, and the
financing came from a member of the Eaton’s Department Store family, in
Maclean-Hunter communications. Unlike the classic rock festivals,
this one was designed to be portable right from its conception, although
in the case of Woodstock and Altamont there was a lot of travel before
they landed in their final venues. For instance, Woodstock is the name
of the intended location, while the actual 1969 event took place on the
far side of the Catskill Mountains near White Lake, N.Y.
was plagued from the outset with difficulties, starting with Montreal
Mayor Drapeau’s decision not to allow the premier concert to take place
on June 24th (St.
Jean Baptiste Day) in his city. Vancouver city council also
rescinded the permit for a proposed concert at the end of the train
ride. Something to recall is the fact that politicians at that time did
not greet the prospect of large rock gatherings with a lot of
enthusiasm: a far cry from the biggest rock
concert in Canadian history (450,000):
2003, headlining The Rolling Stones where the municipal officials lined
up to rub shoulders with the rock stars.
first concerts took place at the
Canadian National Exhibition (C.N.E.) grandstand in Toronto, June
27-28, 1970. The line-up was stellar, but again trouble was brewing in
the form of political protesters who wanted to see a free concert in the
wake of Woodstock the previous year, and there were some misguided
connections to anti-Vietnam war protests. Even at the time, the $14,
two-day pass to hear 21 acts sounded reasonable. However, The Grateful
Dead had to put on a free concert in a nearby park to placate the
protesters, as a compromise in order to let the concerts go ahead
The Grateful Dead
In addition to
The Band, the bill included Canadian musicians
Sylvia, with their excellent country-rock band The Great Speckled
Bird (featuring Amos Garrett), Quebec rocker
Robert Charlebois, Montreal’s
James & the Good
Brothers. Most of the musicians in Janis Joplin’s band Full Tilt
Boogie were Canadian, including Toronto keyboardist Richard Bell who
would in time tour with the revived 1980's version of The Band, minus
By the time
the train reached Winnipeg on July 1, 1970, the wheels were starting to
fall off the tour. This may not have been apparent to the fans who
packed the stadium, but behind the scenes there were already serious
financial problems brewing for both the promoters and for the company
making the feature documentary. The cameramen,
Peter Biziou (who
would go on to win an Oscar for his cinematography in
Burning") and Bob Fiore discovered that they weren’t being paid. In
retaliation, they each seized 7,000 feet of completed footage as a lien
against their wages. There were also claims for sound recording and
legal fees totalling $70,000.
In spite of
these difficulties, the party rolled on across the prairies to Calgary,
where the final concert took place in McMahon Stadium on July 4th.
The best scenes in the new documentary are those with the musicians
jamming and enjoying each other’s company. The concert footage is
stunning, with the major acts like Joplin, The Band and The Grateful
Dead at the pinnacle of their respective careers. However, it’s the
informal glimpses behind the scenes which are most revealing. One of the
participants who was interviewed for the documentary states that
“Woodstock was a treat for the fans, the Festival Express was a treat
for the musicians.”
In the end,
Maclean-Hunter, the Toronto communications firm who bankrolled the
concerts, lost over half a million dollars. Ken Walker and Thor Eaton
decided to try another line of work, and Production Canada Express, the
film production company, quickly filed for bankruptcy.
quintessentially Canadian is the fact that Gavin Poolman, the son of
Willem Poolman (the 1970 producer of the original footage) played hockey
as a kid using the film cans, stored in the family garage, as goal
posts. A heritage moment if there ever was one. It’s a credit to the
Poolman family that they persevered and saw this project to completion
over the past three decades. "Festival Express" proves that it was
worth the wait.
premiere last September of "Festival Express," there have been a large
number of articles in the press written frequently by journalists waxing
nostalgic about their own connection to the festival events. For
instance, Brian Johnson in Maclean’s recounted being a gate crasher at
the Toronto stop. Most of the reviews have been very positive about the
new feature documentary.
However, without exception, they failed to make the connection between
the 1970 Festival Express and the 1974 documentary
"Janis." It was produced by Crawley Films, which was Canada’s
largest private film company at the time.
Frank Radford “Budge” Crawley bought the rights to all the "Festival
Express" footage, with the intent of making a feature focusing on The
Band and Janis Joplin. However, the Band declined to grant a release (as
they had the previous year with Warner Brother’s Woodstock feature), so
Crawley narrowed the subject to Joplin alone. Co-directors Howard Alk
and Seaton Findlay only used 23 minutes of the material from the
"Festival Express," and the remainder came from other concert footage
and television interviews with Janis.
When it was
released in 1974 by Universal Pictures, Janis had great potential and
expectations were high that it would be a great artistic and financial
success. However, Universal failed to promote the film, choosing to opt
for a large television sale in the U.S. and pulling it from the
theatres. Crawley Films successfully sued Universal, but the process
took years, and in the end very few people actually got to see Janis.
Some of this may account for the fact that Joplin never became a 1960's
cultural icon in the way that her contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix, The
Doors and The Who did. That is about to change.
In addition to
the revival of interest in her via Festival Express, Hollywood has
announced no less than two fictional features based on the Life & Times
of Janis. The first one has singer Pink in the lead role (The Gospel
According to Janis) and the other stars fellow Texan Renee Zellweger
(Piece of My Heart). Presumably the studios are trying to make up for
the awful 1979 biopic
"The Rose" starring Bette Midler as a self-destructive rock star
modelled on Janis Joplin.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the
song "Might As Well" about the Festival Express train trip. This song,
performed over the years by the Grateful Dead, has lots of lyrics
referencing this trip. Two bands, Traffic and Ten Years After, performed
at the Toronto concert of the Festival Express tour but were not on the
train, thus were not included in the film.