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 Festival Express

During the summer of 1998, I received a call from famed record producer Eddie Kramer. Kramer had worked with such rock legends as Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, and it was while working on a Hendrix documentary we became friends.

Kramer had met Garth Douglas who had found some amazing archival footage shot in 1970 around a series of Canadian music festivals. He wondered if Kramer knew anyone who could help him pull the material together as a feature film. Kramer suggested me. Douglas filled me in on the back story: the Festivals had been the brain child of concert promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, who also had the idea of having the bands travel on a chartered train. The whole event was to be filmed with the view of becoming a feature along the lines of Woodstock and Monterey Pop. The film would be called Festival Express.

Unfortunately, kids in Toronto in 1970 had decided music should be free and that they were being ripped off by capitalist businessmen. Therefore, when the bands arrived at the opening festival in Toronto, they were greeted with protests—these kids thought that fifteen dollars a ticket was a rip-off. Riots ensued, the concerts were poorly attended, but the bands didn’t mind; they were having a great time partying on a private train.

By the time the Festival Express rolled into Calgary for the final concert, the cameramen who were supposed to be filming were partying as much as the groups. The film idea fell by the wayside, and the footage and audio materials disappeared. Until Garth Douglas discovered it lying in a film vault more than twenty years later.

I looked at the mute footage, material of Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead, amongst others. The concerts had been recorded on eight track audio tape and Kramer felt we could mix the audio with the footage, and put together something quite impressive. I wouldn’t normally work on a project where the vast majority of the material had already been shot, but the prospect of bringing Festival Express to the screen was too good to resist.

Then the whole thing ground to a halt when Garth discovered that none of the artists had signed release forms! A music rights lawyer informed us just to get image, likeness, and publishing rights would cost in the region of one million dollars. It seemed a film of Festival Express was not going to happen.

Jump forward five years to 2002. I am in London cutting the performance material that would eventually be included. In the four previous years, I had assembled a trailer featuring some of the artists on the Festival Express. This trailer was shown to a number of private investors (who just happened to be big fans of the Dead) by film producer Gavin Poolman, son of the original producer of the aborted film, and, together with his partner John Trapman, they raised the finances to pay the performers, cover the publishing costs, and the additional expense of making the film. Festival Express was back on track.

At this stage, we began to realise the size of the task ahead. Very few of the film rolls had been logged, and it was trial and error trying to match the audio to the image. Also, the cameramen would run out of film ten minutes into a performance and we would have a black hole with audio but no pictures. Songs would have to be edited and Eddie Kramer would have to work his magic so that even the artists themselves would not be able to tell.

All in all, I listened to over sixty hours of audio. I knew if it sounded great, the artists (who still had final approval) would be happy with the way they looked. Who didn’t look better thirty years ago? We showed rough cuts to the artists who all agreed they had never looked or sounded better.

We had decided we would allow the footage to tell the story; we didn’t want to resort to a voice over from 2003 telling us how it was back in 1970. When we realised that big chunks of the narrative were missing, we interviewed people who were there at the time. Members of the bands, the concert promoters, fans, and music journalists gave us firsthand accounts.

The film finally began to take shape. Originally, I felt that I had been given a jigsaw puzzle in a box, with no lid to show us how the finished thing was meant to look. But now, after many years, the pieces were beginning to fit.

When we had the version we all wanted to go with, the original 16mm footage was blown up to 35mm. Peter Biziou, the original director of photography, insisted we retain the original feel of the old 16mm stock. This fit with our plan, which was to allow the film to look in 2003, how it would have looked had it been completed in 1970. Eddie Kramer did a sterling job mixing the sound and insists he never had to repair any bum notes. He too was amazed how these guys could party all night and day on the train and still turn in such amazing performances.

I watched the film for the first time with a paying audience at the Toronto Film Festival during September of 2003. Close by was the original producer, Willem Poolman, who due to the original failure to make a film of Festival Express, had lost his house. Near him sat Ken Walker the promoter who had the original idea for the Tour. Things had taken a turn for the worse for him post-Festival Express. To see the smiles on their faces as the film returned them to that summer of 1970 made all the trials and tribulations worthwhile.

As the film nears its end we see Janis Joplin bring Ken Walker onstage, hand him a case of tequila, and tell him “next time you throw a train, invite me.”

I am glad I was invited along for the ride!

 

Filmed in 1970—and consisting largely of previously unseen footage—Festival Express documents the eponymous "happening" that was conceived as Canada's answer to Woodstock. What made it unique was that it was portable: for five days, the bands and performers—including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, among others—lived, slept, rehearsed and did countless unmentionable things aboard a customized train that traveled from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary, with each stop culminating in a mega-concert.