The film, released by THINKFilm, was produced by Gavin Poolman (son of the original 1970 film shoot's producer, Willem Poolman) together with John Trapman, and directed by double Grammy Award-winner Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology), with music produced by Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin), and features original footage shot in 1970 by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Biziou (Mississippi Burning, Pink Floyd – The Wall , The Truman Show). The original 1970 footage was filmed by director Frank Cvitanovich. A DVD release followed the film's 2003 theatrical run.
Festival Express was staged in three Canadian cities: Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, during the summer of 1970. Rather than flying into each city, the musicians traveled by chartered Canadian National Railways train, in a total of 14 cars (two engines, one diner, five sleepers, two lounge cars, two flat cars, one baggage car, and one staff car). The train journey between cities ultimately became a combination of non-stop jam sessions and partying fueled by alcohol. One highlight of the documentary is a drunken jam session featuring The Band's Rick Danko, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, New Riders of the Purple Sage's John Dawson, as well as Janis Joplin.
The event, initially billed as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, was promoted by Eaton-Walker Associates (consisting of Thor Eaton, George Eaton, and Ken Walker) and the concerts were produced and financed together with Industrial and Trade Shows of Canada (ITS) division of MacLean-Hunter Publishing Company (Ken Walker developed and conceived the project from beginning to end) and was to encompass the following cities:
The Montreal event was cancelled a few weeks before the scheduled date by Lucien Saulnier, chairman of the City of Montreal Executive Committee (and acting under authority of mayor Jean Drapeau), because it clashed with St. Jean-Baptiste Day (June 24) celebrations and there were concerns about a diluted security force and the potential for violence. Buses were run from Montreal to the Toronto Festival Express stop and Montreal tickets were honored in Toronto. The Vancouver venue, Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) Empire Stadium, could not be secured as they were scheduled to have artificial turf (Tartan Turf) installed shortly before the scheduled event, and there was concern about damage to the turf. In March, 1970, Walker requested use of an alternate venue, Capilano Stadium, for the event, but this was denied by the Vancouver City Council over several concerns, including inadequate sanitary and food facilities, challenges with policing the event, and vagrancy. Therefore, Vancouver was dropped from the tour, and Calgary was subsequently added. The event in Calgary was initially to be held in an open field, Paskapoo Ski Hill (to later become Canada Olympic Park), but the city requested it be held at McMahon Stadium instead, as it would permit better organization and security.
The tour ultimately began in Toronto at the CNE Grandstand, which was plagued with about 2500 protestors who objected to what they viewed as exploitation by price-gouging promoters. The opposition was organized by the May 4th Movement (M4M), the left-rebel group that grew out of the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings. They attempted to crash the gates and scale the barbed wire fence and clashed with police, resulting in several injuries. To help calm the crowd, Metro Police Inspector Walter Magahay asked the promoter, Ken Walker, to lower ticket prices, but this would have left the promoters unable to pay the musicians. Subsequently, Jerry Garcia, in conjunction with Magahay, was instrumental in calming the unruly crowd by arranging a spontaneous free "rehearsal" concert in nearby Coronation Park upon a flatbed truck, while the scheduled show continued at the stadium. Once the free concert, which began at about 7:00pm on June 27, was announced, most of the ticketless fans dispersed to Coronation Park, with an initial attendance of about 6,000, thereby resolving the protest. Once the show at the CNE Grandstand ended at 12:30am, another 6,000 fans went to the park for the remainder of the free concert, which lasted until about 4:00am on June 28. Playing at Coronation Park were The Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, James and the Good Brothers, the New Riders of the Purple Sage (all of whom also performed at the CNE concert). Other local Toronto bands also played, including January, The People's Revolutionary Concert Band, Si Potma and P.M. Howard (of Beatlemania fame). There are some reports indicating a free concert was also performed on the second day, albeit to a much smaller crowd of about 500, as many of the protesters paid admission to the event on the second day. Many people spent the night and following day sleeping in the park until the second show at CNE Grandstand ended at 12:30am on June 29.
(The film shows a liquor stop in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.) On the way to Winnipeg, the second stop on the tour, the train stopped in Chapleau, Ontario, to replenish its dwindling alcohol supply, buying out the entire stock of a small liquor store. The Winnipeg show had only a modest turnout of 4,600, partly due to fears about crowd violence based on the events in Toronto and partly due to the Manitoba Centennial appearance by Prime Minister Trudeau. The event was not plagued with protest or any appreciable violence, however.
In Calgary, the third and final stop, the police wished to avoid the protests that were witnessed in Toronto and their presence seemed to subdue the crowds outside the stadium, though there were many complaints about the ticket prices. It was estimated that about 1000 people managed to sneak in on Saturday by climbing fences (a few rushed the gates) early in the day, but security was tightened and on Saturday afternoon and Sunday fewer people had sneaked in for free. However, there was a heated altercation between promoter Ken Walker and Calgary mayor Rod Sykes after Sykes strongly suggested to Walker on Sunday afternoon that he open the gates and let the kids in for free after the show was well underway. Walker, who was livid about the mayor's intrusion and his reference to Walker as "Eastern scum" "trying to skim" the young people of Calgary, claimed to have punched the mayor in the mouth, and boasted that he still had a scar on his hand to prove it.
The tour had an original budget of about $900,000 (of which $500,000 was for musical talent), but largely due to less than predicted turnout, gross receipts were just over $500,000 and the project ultimately lost between $350,000 and $500,000 for the promoters. Although the tour was a financial failure, the tour featured now-legendary performances by The Band, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sha Na Na and Buddy Guy, among others. The Dead were just transforming their sound from dense, jammed psychedelia to the country/folk harmonies of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty; the Band's performance showed them at the pinnacle of their powers; for Janis Joplin, it would turn out to be some of her last performances, as she died about three months later. In the film, musician Kenny Gradney, who performed with Delaney & Bonnie, commented on the atmosphere during the tour, "It was better than Woodstock, as great as Woodstock was." Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead further said, "Woodstock was a treat for the audience, but the train was a treat for the performers."
These festival performers were not featured in the film or DVD extras:Robert Charlebois
Delaney & Bonnie (Delaney Bramlett sits in with Great Speckled Bird during "C.C. Rider" and Bonnie Bramlett can be seen on the train)
The Ides of March
James and The Good Brothers
Mountain (member Leslie West can be seen jamming at the beginning of the film)
Ten Years After (only performed in Toronto – fantastic performances of I'm Goin' Home and Slow Blues In C were filmed, but lead guitarist and singer Alvin Lee wouldn't approve their appearance in the film, saying he thought his guitar was out of tune) (the source for this is Gavin Poolman, producer of the film, in May 2011)
Traffic (only performed in Toronto – didn't ride the train; on the DVD, promoter Ken Walker states that Traffic was on the train but the band's record company wouldn't allow them to appear in the film. Two performances were filmed anyway, however Steve Winwood's management refused permission for these to appear in the film) (the source for this is Gavin Poolman, producer of the film, in May 2011)
The New Riders of the Purple Sage, which, in mid-1970, featured Jerry Garcia on pedal-steel guitar, as well as Mickey Hart as occasional percussionist. Also, John Dawson is seen in the hilarious "Ain't No More Cane" scene, sitting on the couch with Rick Danko and Janis Joplin, as they work through several drunken verses of the tune. Buddy Cage can also be seen, performing as a member of Great Speckled Bird.
Because the Festival Express tour turned out to be a complete financial disaster, the film project was shelved soon afterwards, as the promoters sued the filmmakers, and the footage mysteriously disappeared. Some of the film's reels turned up in the garage of the original producer Willem Poolman, where they had been stored for decades and used at various times as goal posts for ball hockey games played by his son Gavin. The plan to resurrect the film was started in 1999 by executive producer Garth Douglas and story consultant James Cullingham, who found many more reels in the Canadian National Film Archives vault, where it had been kept in pristine condition and unknown to the world. Garth got in touch with Gavin, who had grown up to become a London-based film producer. Gavin produced the film together with his old high school friend John Trapman (who had played in some of those ball hockey games), and Bob Smeaton, double Grammy Award-winning director of The Beatles Anthology was brought on board. The music tracks were mixed at Toronto's MetalWorks Studios, and produced by Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix's producer, and engineer for Led Zeppelin, Woodstock, and Derek & The Dominos Live In Concert.
The film was produced by London-based Apollo Films (now owned by Apollo Media) together with PeachTree Films from Amsterdam.
Festival Express had its world premiere at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. Other festival releases included the San Francisco Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Bermuda Film Festival, London Film Festival, Miami Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival, NatFilm Festival, Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Maine International Film Festival, Flanders International Film Festival, the IN-EDIT Barcelona International Music Documentary Film Festival, Hohaiyan Music Film Festival, Rio Film Festival, Vienna International Film Festival and the São Paulo International Film Festival.
The film was released theatrically on July 23, 2004 in the United States, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Scandinavia.
A two-disc DVD for Region 1 was released on November 2, 2004 by New Line Home Video.
A Blu-ray disc for Region 1 was released in 2014 by Apollo Media Ltd.
The film earned $1.2 million at the US Box Office, and the DVD went straight in at number 1 on the Music Video & Concert DVD top-sellers charts at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Tower Records, etc., and has had an average customer review rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Festival Express was the second most critically acclaimed film released in 2004.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros joined The Railroad Revival Tour in April 2011 with Mumford and Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show. Traveling in vintage rail cars, the three bands performed in six "unique outdoor locations" over the course of a week starting in Oakland, California. The musical documentary Big Easy Express, which was made of the trip and directed by Emmett Malloy, premiered March 2012 at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW Film) in Austin, Texas.Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was on the trip, and soon after wrote "Might as Well", a song filled with imagery from the legendary trip that was often played live by Grateful Dead, but released as a studio tune on the 1976 Jerry Garcia solo album Reflections.
NFL quarterback Joe Kapp can be seen in football pads and sweats during a crowd shot of the Dead's performance of "New Speedway Boogie."