In the midst of packing for my two week trans-Canadian rail trip with Via Rail and the Rocky Mountaineer I popped into Oxfam and happened across the perfect DVD to get me in the correct mental state for the journey.
In 1970 an enterprising rock promoter launched the Festival Express, a series of music festivals across a number of Canadian cities (Toronto, Winnipeg & Calgary, Montreal & Vancouver dates were eventually cancelled), hiring a private train to ferry a troupe of prominent hippy musicians across the vast expanse of the country.
The passenger list read like a veritable who’s who of the late 60s psych rock scene, with those on board including the Grateful Dead, The Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy and more. There’s a tonne of great footage of the almost constant train car jams, and the raucous partying you’d expect. It’s essentially ‘Woodstock on rails’. The concert footage was actually only discovered in 1995 and so is remarkably pristine. Each carriage had its own genre and mood, so there was a folk car, a blue car, a country rock one and so on.
Interviews with the organiser and some of the performers reveal some cracking anecdotes, such as the unscheduled stop the train made at Saskatoon when the musicians had drunk the train dry and a run in with the try-hard, hippy Mayor of Calgary, who in a bid to curry favour with the local scenesters demanded that the promoter Ken Walker let the kids in for free. He was rewarded for his feedback with a bunch of fives on the nose from the rather hard-bitten organiser!
Not your typical 60s rockumentary
Of course it’s a great window into the spirit of the times, but this takes some surprising turns at points. It’s interesting to hear members of the Band and the Dead lamenting the actions of protestors in Toronto, who got into clashes with the police when they couldn’t get free entrance, instead of taking the anti-establishment line you’d expect: ‘The pigs were hassling people and had it coming’ etc.
Perhaps it’s a sign that the era of peace of love was on the turn. Though only a year after Woodstock, it was just a few months after the tragic debacle of the Rolling Stones at Altamont. Speaking of which, Gimme Shelter is another rockumentary of that era well worth watching, but Festival Express, while less well-known, is certainly up there too. In the interviews over the closing credits Walker muses on the experience and talks briefly of his hopes to revive the idea one day, and let’s hope he does.
Train on the Brain
The other documentary I’ve seen involving Canada and trains is called Train on the Brain. I discovered it only when googling for my own blog, honest! As a piece of storytelling on film, it’s less succesful, but still interesting enough. Filmmaker Alison Murray decided to drop out of conventional society for a while to make a documentary following her travails illegally hopping from one Canadian train to another, often sleeping in damp and dirty coal carts. Along the way she teams up with other punks, runaways and itinerant trainhoppers. There are run ins with the police, beatings and some high-spirited skinny dipping. Romance on the rails it is not!
Finally, and back with the music theme, I feel I should mention another great Canadian rockumentary, even if it doesn’t have much of a rail link I’m aware of. Anvil profiles a long serving hair metal band of the same name, well into their middle age, constantly bickering and seemingly going nowhere fast. They’re rather like a real life Spinal Tap, but less successful and almost even more caricatured. It’s one of those films which hooks you in early and takes you on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. You’ll start off in hysterics at their levels of ineptitude and cliché, but are sure to be won over by their passion and pathos. You’ll be rooting for them long before the credits roll.
Well I hope this little diversion of sorts has got you in the mood for the resumption of my own Canadian rail adventures.
Here’s my route:
If you know about any other films of a similar bent worth watching, please share them with a comment below.