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
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
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.
Express" 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
(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
The Band and
The Grateful Dead.
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
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.
The venture 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):
Toronto Rocks, 2003, headlining The Rolling Stones where
the municipal officials lined up to rub shoulders with the
Instead, the 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 uninterrupted.
The Grateful Dead
In addition to The Band, the bill included
Ian & Sylvia, with their excellent country-rock
band The Great Speckled Bird (featuring Amos Garrett), Quebec
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,
(who would go on to win an Oscar for his cinematography
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
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.
Something 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.
Since the 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.
Addendum: 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.