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‘Festival Express' DVD 30 Years in Making

21 Sep, 2004 By: Jessica Wolf


Joining legendary music festival documentaries like Woodstock and Gimme Shelter is Festival Express, which streets Nov. 2 from New Line Home Entertainment through a deal with its New York-based indie theatrical distributor THINKFilm.

This one, though, was more than 30 years in the making. Funding problems and controversy resulted in the near-loss of dozens of hours of footage of legends like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band and other musicians as they spent five heady days partying and performing traveling on a train that chugged across Canada shortly after Woodstock.

Cameramen who realized they would never be paid for their work carted off some of the footage, artists involved in the concert tour and filming of it never signed releases and the whole project was somewhat tainted by protesters angered at the $14 ticket price.

It was four years ago that director Bob Smeaton was drawn into the project, and he dove into preparing Festival Express for theatrical and DVD release.

Smeaton was working on a video on The Band when he signed on to direct Express. He also directed the documentaries on The Who and Meat Loaf as well as the 1995 TV miniseries “The Beatles Anthology.”

Smeaton whittled down hours of tour footage and intercut it with new interviews with artists, concertgoers and crews who witnessed it firsthand into a 90-minute feature that had a short run in theaters earlier this year.

It was a challenge in many respects. “When I first saw the footage, there was about 60 hours of it,” he said. “About 20 percent of that was out of focus because I think the cameramen were imbibing as much as the artists were.”

Smeaton said the idea was to create a documentary that looked like it was filmed in 1970, but with modern visual and audio quality, including 5.1 channel surround sound, and, most importantly, full-length performances like “all the great festival documentaries.”

Festival Express arrives on DVD ($24.98) with more than 25 minutes of additional interviews, a making-of featurette and 50-minutes of additional footage of performances, some from bands who were cut out of the main feature.

“At one point, I had a two-and-a-half hour Festival Express,” Smeaton said. But he wanted to keep it shorter and more in line with other films of its ilk, so much was sent to the DVD.

One of the film's main draws is the footage of Joplin, who died just two months after the Canadian tour, Smeaton said. “There's this whole feeling surrounding Janis Joplin, that she's such a tragic character,” Smeaton said. “But you see her in Festival Express, and she's happy. She's having a great time, and she's in really good form during her performances.” There's plenty of renewed interest in the star with two biopics in the works: Gospel According to Janis, with rocker Pink, and Piece of My Heart, with Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger.

Another major figure in the film is the late Jerry Garcia, who after ticket pricing protests, staged a free concert outside one of the venues.

There's no way you'd be able to get that many major stars of today all on one train, happy to just party and hang out for a few days, Smeaton said. Plus, the whole thing would have a corporate sponsorship label and cost hundreds of dollars a ticket, he added.

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