Most of us grew up with so much love for pieces of our parent’s discography; a collection bursting with riffs, harmonies and lyrical meaning from a time long before ours that we couldn’t get enough of – causing them to double-take when we knew more than the chorus to a CCR tune. Even more of us grew up loving Almost Famous, a 2000 film that details a young journalist’s messy tour with a budding rock band and their trusty bus. Something about us, and something major within me, craves that yesteryear music, the revival of the greats, the life-changing poetic lyrics and the idea of a long-ago life on the road – when music had the power to change absolutely everything.
That still exists. But in the fast-paced digital age, the groupies (and consequently, the insight into life on the road back then) have dwindled, iPhone owners can post a rare celebrity jam to Youtube within the minute and some bands opt for the modern quick and dirty tour – one stop shop, hotel, hit the road again.
Thanks to Hot Docs, the gigantic Canadian International documentary festival that rolls through Toronto with a hoard of docs on every topic imaginable from the end of April until May 6th– I was able to catch a real glimpse into the modern day equivalent of a legendary tour experience.
Big Easy Express, filmed by renowned music documentarian Emmett Malloy, is a chronicle of three colossal bands – Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show – who set out on a six-city “tour of dreams” from Oakland to New Orleans. Riding in a vintage train all to themselves, the chummy musicians only carry with them bundles of instruments to appease their constant musical cravings and every ounce of positive energy to thrill their adoring fans and entertain themselves with post-show musical revelry.
Breathtaking landscape, cinematography and heartwarming one-on-ones with the thoughtful band members would have been enough to sell tickets to the flick – but the 66 minutes of collaborative, tri-band jamming, hair-raising concert footage and heartwarming all-aboard jousting between the three whacky folk-rock, country and Americana collectives feels like a whole other golden ticket to one of the most coveted modern-day musical adventures. In this documentary, the music never stops – and I had full body chills from start to finish.
Malloy divided the film in the most moving of ways; highlighting equal amounts of live concert footage from each of the three bands – including a wave of emotion during Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man” across thousands of fans, a field of romantics stomping to Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” and the dreamer’s anthem “Home” from Edward Sharpe (among many others) – but also walking the bands, and us, right back to the big ol’ train after the sold-out shows. Shots of Alex Ebert (lead singer of Edward Sharpe) walking with his arm around Marcus Mumford, while Old Crow’s Critter Fuqua throws his head back in laughter with bandmate Ketch Secor right behind them, couldn’t be a more tender transition into a glimpse of what happens on board. Even Jake Gyllenhaal was dragged along for the whole tour by Mr. Mumford himeself, and had the time of his life.
When the three bands retire to the train – that’s where the real magic and camaraderie happens; scenes showing floods of band and crew bodies and their sloshing drinks, mingling night after night with the train staff, cramming into a single car with their every imaginable instrument and endless amounts of improvisation and merriment. The scenes depict a constant celebration of sounds; laughter, hugging and the underlying score of the entire film – never, ever-ending music.
My documentary buddy mentioned to me that one of the best parts of the Hot Docs festival is that regardless of the subject matter, it’s such a wonderful artistic exhibition that you’ll get all ages and types attending any and every film. With Big Easy Express, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house, and perhaps the older woman next to me (who arrived solo) might not have known the contemporary bands and their hits – but she, like the rest of the theatre, was bobbing her head to the banjo-driven anthems, laughing at the banter between the three jamming bands and tearing at the overwhelming concert clips.
So, whether or not you are avid fans of any of the three bands, whether or not you can see it in theatre or whether or not you care about the journey – if you appreciate music, and I mean real, love and hope-filled music that can change absolutely anything, then you need to board this train with Emmett Malloy. I guarantee you’ll be in for the ride of a lifetime.