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Expressly Rock 'n' Roll

Flick Chick


Published August 11, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

A precious slice of cultural history comes alive on the big screen with Festival Express, an homage to the passions and freewheeling foolishness that dominated a bygone era. The documentary, which starts August 13 at the Roxy in Burlington, chronicles a 1970 tour across Canada starring Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and Ian & Sylvia, among other acts.

They held concerts in only three cities: Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. Their performances, captured on film, are still mesmerizing. Ditto for the jam sessions and high jinks on the chartered train that transported them to each destination -- with a camera crew along for the ride. Cinematographer Peter Biziou provides a sense of intimacy in the midst of a rollicking extravaganza.

Although just released in New York and Los Angeles, Festival Express was not yet scheduled to reach the hinterlands. But Merrill Jarvis III, whose family owns the local theater, persuaded the distributor to open the movie in Vermont on the same weekend as Phish's farewell concert. Some of those 70,000 fans heading for or leaving Coventry might enjoy witnessing a musical connection that stretches back 34 years.

Hopefully, that experience won't give them any ideas. The Festival Express shows were a financial disaster, thanks to a zeitgeist of anti-capitalist anger: Audiences were largely scared away when activists in Toronto rioted, insisting that the $14 admission price was a rip-off. (Phishheads paid more than 10 times that per ticket -- never mind what some might have shelled out to scalpers.) The Dead, expressing solidarity with the overwhelmed police, did a free gig in a nearby park to ease tensions.

The rockumentary was a buried treasure because the tour's promoters and investors squabbled over the film rights. In the 1990s a British director named Bob Smeaton, who was new to the project, began to assemble about 45 hours of 16-mm footage that had resurfaced after decades in storage. The result is a 90-minute time capsule that offers a glimpse of hippie royalty's capacity for merriment.

Canadian National railway had surely never before hosted such artistic and hedonistic pursuits. "There was a blues car, a country car, a rock 'n' roll car," Dead drummer Mickey Hart recalls on celluloid. "There was never anything like that level of talent and musicianship encapsulated in such close quarters for that length of time."

Buddy Guy remembers the sleeplessness: "Every time I went to bed, I was afraid I would miss something."

"It was a helluva party," The Band's Rick Danko proclaims.

To paraphrase a Dead tune, they're drivin' that train, high on... whatever. But the primary fuel for the five-day journey seems to be alcohol. At one point, the liquid refreshments run out. So, the musicians take up a collection and stop in Saskatoon for a booze run to a convenient trackside liquor store.

A few of the highlights: In a rare quiet moment, Jerry Garcia strums an acoustic guitar and sings a plaintive hymn, "Better Take Jesus' Hand." Onstage, The Band's rendition of "Slippin' and Slidin'" is so exhilarating that modern movie audiences might find it hard to remain seated.

When Joplin -- who died of a drug overdose two months later -- belts out "Cry Baby" and "Tell Mama," she looks wasted but sounds absolutely amazing. We gladly take another little piece of her heart.

Andrey Zyvagintsev's The Return had a North American premiere at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. With extraordinary aplomb for a feature debut, the Russian director taps into the aching need that boys can have for their fathers. The picture, playing at 7 and 9:15 on August 14 in Dartmouth College's Loew auditorium, explores that dynamic within the framework of a mystery.

Two prepubescent sons don't know what to think when Dad (Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly reappears more than a decade after deserting them. His gruff presence doesn't match the kindly looking man in the photo that was all Andrei (the late Vladimir Garin) and younger brother Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) had to remember him by. They get few clues from Mom (Natalia Vdovina), a woman of flat affect.

Dad immediately whisks the kids off to the country for a supposed fishing trip, but it's soon clear he has ulterior motives. Ivan's angry skepticism clashes with Andrei's eagerness to please their cold-hearted papa, who runs the bucolic getaway like boot camp. These relationships are so intense that Zyvagintsev has wisely chosen to use a minimalist approach in spinning his seamless yarn about childhood pain.