DIRECTED BY Bob Smeaton
STARRING Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Sand Opens September 3, Cert U, 90 mins
In the summer of 1970, The Grateful Dead and a bunch of musical friends, misfits, oddballs and weirdos were booked by an enterprising local promoter on a week-long trek across Canada by private train. “A bunch of crazy people careening across the countryside making music night and day,” as Dead bassist Phil Lesh eloquently puts it in one of the retrospective interviews recorded for this film by Bob Smeaton, whose previous credits include The Beatles Anthology DVD. The recollections of Lesh and others (including most of the Janis Joplin band) more than three decades on acts as a commentary to previously unreleased footage shot on the trip which captures Janis, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie and the Dead hanging out on the train, passing the bottle and jamming, as well as various stop-offs en route for a series of scheduled concerts, conceived as a kind of travelling Woodstock circus.
Deadheads might be disappointed that the egendary stories of Joplin getting the Dead drunk and the band retaliating by spiking her birthday cake with LSD aren’t touched on here. But we get a strong whiff of the freewheeling mayhem of the trip in such scenes as the train halt in Saskatoon, during which Joplin’s tour manager John Cooke?son of the recently deceased BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke-gleefully buys the entire contents of the local liquor store on the grounds that they didn’t know when they’d next get the opportunity. Somehow, they still managed to consume even this unholy quantity of booze by the next morning.
Mischievous shenanigans aside, it’s the music that’s at the core of the film. At the first scheduled concert, a full-blown riot breaks out as anarcho-hippies demand it should be a free event, and the scenes, reminiscent of Mick Farren and co tearing down the fences at the Isle of Wight, make dramatic viewing. But Festival Express is most memorable for the charismatic presence joplin and Garcia, whose musical vitality is as intoxicating as anything they were drinking or ingesting along the way.