The hippie-era rock-festival documentary is sort of its own genre, with parameters established by D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop: The prototypical entry combines stylishly shot, energetic performances with montages of bright-eyed gentle people spreading the peace. Bob Smeaton's Festival Express—recently compiled from long-abandoned footage of The Grateful Dead's legendary 1970 train trip across Canada—feels a little like Monterey Pop and a little like Woodstock, but it mostly resembles Murray Lerner's similarly late-coming Message To Love: The Isle Of Wight Festival. Both films document the apex of a musical and cultural movement, alongside the reasons for its speedy decline.
As The Dead and its tourmates (including The Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the inevitable Sha Na Na) chug across the southern provinces from city to city, the musicians swig whiskey and jam and gear up for the demands of the next stop. On the train, it's all music and brotherhood, but off the train there are student activists protesting the high ticket prices (in spite of the fact that at almost every city the Dead would squeeze in a free show), reporters asking about the recent violence at Altamont, and promoters sweating the vast sums of money they're losing. It would be reading too much into the movie to suggest that Festival Express captures the moment where rock turned corporate, but Smeaton records the dimming light in its subjects' eyes, as the question about whether the audience is being gouged prompts annoyance, as well as a growing sense that bands need to exploit first or get exploited.
But the sociological angle of Festival Express is a narrow one—perhaps too narrow—and doesn't overwhelm the film's real selling point, which is some of the best-looking and best-sounding footage of counterculture icons ever screened. Buddy Guy's searing take on "Money (That's What I Want)" provides a welcome reminder of how open the channels were between rock, blues, and soul at the turn of the '70s. The Band comes off better here than in the overpraised Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz, where the director and stars try too hard to make "haggard" heroic. Best of all are the Grateful Dead performances: Jerry Garcia and company kept its music out of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and most of its own concert films come from the time when the group was becoming more and more inert. Festival Express catches the Dead on a roll, in the midst of recording and releasing its two essential albums (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty), while discovering, with equal parts glee and terror, the darker side of utopia.