Festival Express Takes Off
by James Forrester

James Forrester

Works at the Ontario College of Art & Design
 as a systems librarian
Has been writing about Canadian film
 since graduating in Film Studies from Queen's University
  Is convinced that a BMW K100 motorcycle is the 'perfect vehicle'

Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont music festivals are all landmarks of popular music history. Each of these events was immortalised in a feature-length documentary film ("Monterey Pop," "Woodstock," "Gimme Shelter") not long after it took place. However, the Festival Express, which toured Canada on a specially equipped Canadian National (CN) train in the summer of 1970, has faded into undeserved obscurity. Professional cameramen and audio engineers documented the concerts on film and audiotape, but a number of factors conspired to ensure that this superb material would languish in storage for three decades.

There is a long complicated explanation as to why it took almost thirty-five years for the film to reach the big screen. Suffice it to say, the short version involves two film producers with different visions of the final product, lawyers, a car chase, a bankruptcy, a food locker, a national film archive, plus lots and lots of money.

"Festival Express" premiered in September 2003 at the Toronto International Film Festival and it was subsequently screened at other film festivals, including Rotterdam, Nashville, and San Francisco. Producers Gavin Poolman and John Trapman worked with British director Bob Smeaton (who created the Beatles Anthology) and audio wizard Eddie Kramer to restore the reputation of this landmark Canadian musical event. In the process, they have created an instant classic by rescuing the original 16mm footage, and adding interviews with some of the participants - those who are still with us. To quote Neil Young (who was not on the Festival Express train), it’s the “needle and the damage done” territory when it comes to late1960s/early 1970s rock and roll figures. The headliners were Janis Joplin, The Band and The Grateful Dead. The DVD was recently released, and it contains many more acts who were not seen in the theatrical release.

The Band

The idea of taking a train load of rock musicians across the country was the inspiration of Ken Walker, a 24-year-old commerce graduate, and the financing came from a member of the Eaton’s Department Store family, in combination with Maclean-Hunter communications. Unlike the classic rock festivals, this one was designed to be portable right from its conception, although in the case of Woodstock and Altamont there was a lot of travel before they landed in their final venues. For instance, Woodstock is the name of the intended location, while the actual 1969 event took place on the far side of the Catskill Mountains near White Lake, N.Y.

The venture was plagued from the outset with difficulties, starting with Montreal Mayor Drapeau’s decision not to allow the premier concert to take place on June 24th (St. Jean Baptiste Day) in his city. Vancouver city council also rescinded the permit for a proposed concert at the end of the train ride. Something to recall is the fact that politicians at that time did not greet the prospect of large rock gatherings with a lot of enthusiasm: a far cry from the biggest rock concert in Canadian history (450,000): Toronto Rocks, 2003, headlining The Rolling Stones where the municipal officials lined up to rub shoulders with the rock stars.

Instead, the first concerts took place at the Canadian National Exhibition (C.N.E.) grandstand in Toronto, June 27-28, 1970. The line-up was stellar, but again trouble was brewing in the form of political protesters who wanted to see a free concert in the wake of Woodstock the previous year, and there were some misguided connections to anti-Vietnam war protests. Even at the time, the $14, two-day pass to hear 21 acts sounded reasonable. However, The Grateful Dead had to put on a free concert in a nearby park to placate the protesters, as a compromise in order to let the concerts go ahead uninterrupted.

The Grateful Dead

In addition to The Band, the bill included Canadian musicians Ian & Sylvia, with their excellent country-rock band The Great Speckled Bird (featuring Amos Garrett), Quebec rocker Robert Charlebois, Montreal’s Mashmakhan, plus James & the Good Brothers. Most of the musicians in Janis Joplin’s band Full Tilt Boogie were Canadian, including Toronto keyboardist Richard Bell who would in time tour with the revived 1980's version of The Band, minus Robbie Robertson.

By the time the train reached Winnipeg on July 1, 1970, the wheels were starting to fall off the tour. This may not have been apparent to the fans who packed the stadium, but behind the scenes there were already serious financial problems brewing for both the promoters and for the company making the feature documentary. The cameramen, Peter Biziou (who would go on to win an Oscar for his cinematography in "Mississippi Burning") and Bob Fiore discovered that they weren’t being paid. In retaliation, they each seized 7,000 feet of completed footage as a lien against their wages. There were also claims for sound recording and legal fees totalling $70,000.

In spite of these difficulties, the party rolled on across the prairies to Calgary, where the final concert took place in McMahon Stadium on July 4th. The best scenes in the new documentary are those with the musicians jamming and enjoying each other’s company. The concert footage is stunning, with the major acts like Joplin, The Band and The Grateful Dead at the pinnacle of their respective careers. However, it’s the informal glimpses behind the scenes which are most revealing. One of the participants who was interviewed for the documentary states that “Woodstock was a treat for the fans, the Festival Express was a treat for the musicians.”

Janis Joplin

In the end, Maclean-Hunter, the Toronto communications firm who bankrolled the concerts, lost over half a million dollars. Ken Walker and Thor Eaton decided to try another line of work, and Production Canada Express, the film production company, quickly filed for bankruptcy.

Something quintessentially Canadian is the fact that Gavin Poolman, the son of Willem Poolman (the 1970 producer of the original footage) played hockey as a kid using the film cans, stored in the family garage, as goal posts. A heritage moment if there ever was one. It’s a credit to the Poolman family that they persevered and saw this project to completion over the past three decades.  "Festival Express" proves that it was worth the wait.


Since the premiere last September of "Festival Express," there have been a large number of articles in the press written frequently by journalists waxing nostalgic about their own connection to the festival events. For instance, Brian Johnson in Maclean’s recounted being a gate crasher at the Toronto stop. Most of the reviews have been very positive about the new feature documentary.

However, without exception, they failed to make the connection between the 1970 Festival Express and the 1974 documentary "Janis." It was produced by Crawley Films, which was Canada’s largest private film company at the time. Frank Radford “Budge” Crawley bought the rights to all the "Festival Express" footage, with the intent of making a feature focusing on The Band and Janis Joplin. However, the Band declined to grant a release (as they had the previous year with Warner Brother’s Woodstock feature), so Crawley narrowed the subject to Joplin alone. Co-directors Howard Alk and Seaton Findlay only used 23 minutes of the material from the "Festival Express," and the remainder came  from other concert footage and television interviews with Janis.

Janis Joplin

When it was released in 1974 by Universal Pictures, Janis had great potential and expectations were high that it would be a great artistic and financial success. However, Universal failed to promote the film, choosing to opt for a large television sale in the U.S. and pulling it from the theatres. Crawley Films successfully sued Universal, but the process took years, and in the end very few people actually got to see Janis.

Some of this may account for the fact that Joplin never became a 1960's cultural icon in the way that her contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Who did. That is about to change.

In addition to the revival of interest in her via Festival Express, Hollywood has announced no less than two fictional features based on the Life & Times of Janis. The first one has singer Pink in the lead role (The Gospel According to Janis) and the other stars fellow Texan Renee Zellweger (Piece of My Heart). Presumably the studios are trying to make up for the awful 1979 biopic "The Rose" starring Bette Midler as a self-destructive rock star modelled on Janis Joplin.

Addendum: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the song "Might As Well" about the Festival Express train trip. This song, performed over the years by the Grateful Dead, has lots of lyrics referencing this trip. Two bands, Traffic and Ten Years After, performed at the Toronto concert of the Festival Express tour but were not on the train, thus were not included in the film.

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