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Crazy train

Railroad Rockumentary rolls into Rainbow

What: Reel Alternatives — Festival Express

Where: Rainbow Theatre

When: Wednesday, Oct. 20

Tickets: $9

In the summer of 1970 Canadian concert promoters Ken Wallace and Thor Eaton staged an ambitious rolling rock-stravaganza.

A Woodstock-worthy lineup of musicians was rounded up for a series of festival performances across our vast nation. The unique factor in the equation: they would start in Toronto and proceed westward from venue to venue via train.

The rockin’ railcars were christened the Festival Express (likely with a 26 oz. bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, copious amounts of which disappeared down the performers’ hard-partying hatches during the course of the journey).

Who were these rock ’n’ roll rail riders? These guitar-slinging knights of the parallel steel?

Let’s start with the headliners: The Band, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin – a casualty of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle just two months later, but still at the top of her raspy-voiced game on the Festival Express.

Add to the mix Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie, Ian and Sylvia, and a host of supporting players such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Sha Na Na.

Put party icons Janis, Jerry and The Band’s bass player Rick Danko on a train together and of course you’re going to want to have some sort of record of the encounter. Naturally, the Festival Express included an onboard film crew for an intended rockumentary.

There proved to be no shortage of camera-worthy moments.

Grateful Dead drummer Phil Lesh’s take on things was "a train of insane people careening across the Canadian countryside, making music night and day and then occasionally we’d get off the train to go play a concert."

Rather than sequester themselves in private quarters the energetic performers turned the train into a non-stop, goodtime, whiskey-fueled jam session, much of which revolved around head Deadhead Jerry Garcia, "his beard still black and his eyes still focused," New York Times reviewer David Kehr quips.

It’s these raw collaborations of some of rock’s most colourful characters that lie at the heart of the film. As Kehr goes on to say: "to watch the biggest stars of their time in casual conversation, trading riffs and passing bottles... without benefit of publicists, handlers, and security goons is to relive an innocent anarchic time in the entertainment business when music, not marketing, was at the center of the enterprise."

But as legendary as the lineup and the freewheelin’ spirit is considered by today’s cult-of-the-dead-rockstar-worshipping standards, the true legend of Festival Express is how the film itself came to be.

The performers may have been all for it, but many fans at the time revolted against the tour’s $14 ticket. Hippie-think insisted that the music should be free, man.

The resulting controversy meant that for all its creative wealth, Festival Express was a financial dud. As the train chugged toward its final stop in Calgary, Willem Poolman, principal producer of the intended film, and the promoters were feuding. According to Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, it got to the point where Poolman was banned from the train and a court order issued to keep him from developing whatever film he had managed to take off the Festival Express.

With no one officially in charge to stop them, unpaid cameramen took off with reels of footage as leverage or just as mementos of a wild rock ’n’ roll journey of the kind where if you remembered it, you probably weren’t there.

According to official Festival Express lore, the work prints ended up in Poolman’s garage, surviving bitter Canadian winters and use as road hockey goal posts by the producer’s son Gavin Poolman.

Luckily, several reels were salvaged by a young man named Bill O’Farrell, who had been involved in the original production. The forward thinker dumped the footage off at the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, where they remained for the next 25 years.

The footage was eventually unearthed by curiosity-fuelled rock aficionado and filmmaker Garth Douglas. In an ironic twist Gavin Poolman signed on as producer to finish what his father had started, recruiting acclaimed documentary filmmaker Bob Smeaton to direct.

It took 10 years to finish the film, which was assembled out of the 46 hours remaining of the 75 hours shot.

"Making Festival Express was like being handed a giant jigsaw puzzle, minus the lid to the box that shows the picture of how the film was meant to look," Smeaton has remarked.

And though documentary conventions such as present day interviews have been cut in, Smeaton emphasizes that he tried to keep them at a minimum to avoid tainting this unique time capsule with a 21st century sensibility.

"The archive tells the story," Smeaton says. "That’s where the narrative is.… It’s there in the pictures and the sounds. It’s fantastic."

Festival Expres

s screens at Rainbow Theatre on Wednesday evening at 7 and 9 p.m. as part of the Whistler Film Festival’s Reel Alternatives series. Tickets are $9, available in advance at Nesters Market and at the venue after 6 p.m. The next Reel Alternatives film is Riding Giants – director Stacey Peralta’s ( Dogtown and Z-Boys ) look at surfing. The film screens on Nov. 10 at Rainbow Theatre and will be the last Reel Alternatives film before the Whistler Film Festival, which runs Dec. 2-5.

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