My husband and I, movie buffs that we are, have been taking in the D.C. Film Festival, which just wound up last night. We topped off a round of nine movies with Festival Express, a 2003 documentary chronicling a 1970 train tour across Canada by a bunch of big names in Sixties rock: the Band, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and so forth. (You may wonder why it took 33 years to make this movie–but apparently the footage lay forgotten in a warehouse for all these decades. The tour itself had been a financial flop, because the young Canadians had decided in a fit of anti-capitalist frenzy that they were entitled to listen to the music for free and refused to buy tickets to the festival concerts. They were the precedecessors of today’s freeloader-downloaders.)
The movie turned out to be a useful lesson in Sixties nostalgia–or actually in the exorcizing of Sixties nostalgia. As I watched Jerry Garcia, et al. lurch onstage in wrinkled bellbottoms and take snorts from the giant bottle of Canadian Club that eased their five-day way on the CN diesel from Toronto to Calgary, my main thought was: These people look awful! No one had heard of men’s hairstyling back then, and these guys, determinedly hirsuite, sported unkempt clumps of hair coiling behind ears and/or spilling across sweaty foreheads. Iicky, brushy Ulysses S. Grant sideburns. Noah’s Ark beards. These musicians–and their audiences–all could have used a session with “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” And Janis: the mottled skin, the thrift-shop jewelry, the feather boa pinned to the top of her head–can you imagine anyone letting Britney Spears out of the house in such a getup? It’s a different, sleeker youth world these days, in which “Friends” and “The O.C.” set the standards of grooming.
And frankly, the music wasn’t all that great either. There was exactly one first-rate group: The Band. Janis Joplin had cut some good songs–but by 1970, the year of her death, she had already wrecked her voice to a frog’s croak by years of nonstop singing at full blast without modulation. I’ve always considered the Grateful Dead overrated, and as for the other groups on the tour–Delaney and Bonnie, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ian and Sylvia–who knows where they are now, and who cares?
There were a couple of redeeming features. One was to realize how inescapably American the American music of the Sixties was. This was supposedly the high point of the era of Amerika-bashing, yet all we heard in the film were tunes steeped in blues, bluegrass, gospel, hillbilly, and ur-R&B. Just as the Sixties musicians strove to look as though they’d stepped out of Matthew Brady photographs, they strove to make sounds that evoked their country’s rich musical past. There was something touchingly patriotic about the whole enterprise.
And touchingly un-PC, too. Everyone on that Sixties train drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney. You wouldn’t see anything like that nowadays.