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With the passing of bluegrass and folk music icons Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson earlier this year, the trajectory of American roots music was shaken to the core. Trendsetters in their day, these musicians helped create the gold standard of modern American acoustic music, along with legends like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. With the relentless ascendancy of frequently forgettable pop music, the baton has made a sometimes shaky transition to new generations, but Emmett Malloy’s scintillating concert-tour doc Big Easy Express reveals some of the leading trendsetters in U.S. roots music today, even if they don’t always originate in the American heartland.
After the filmmakers took home the headliner audience award at SXSW, production company S2BN broke new ground this week by making Big Easy Express the first feature film available globally for download on iTunes Movies (where it charted in the top 25 within the first few days) prior to any other platform. Continuing to invert release windows, the film streets on home video in July (with 25 minutes of additional concert footage), followed by theatrical and VOD distribution in the fall. Make no mistake, Big Easy Express ventures deep into acoustic jam-band territory, where many may decline to venture, but the bands’ genuine camaraderie, infectious musicality and sheer joy of performance are just as likely to snare new fans as to rally stalwarts, regardless of format.
In April 2011, folk rockers Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros from Los Angeles, Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons (roots radicals from Britain) set off on an eight-day, six-city tour aboard a vintage train, journeying from Oakland to New Orleans, the “Big Easy,” on what they dubbed the “Railroad Revival Tour.” Most of the concerts on the whistle-stop journey are smallish affairs, with several set at outdoor venues in proximity to train stations. In between, the band members, family and friends jam and party their way across country, developing unstoppable musical momentum that culminates in a packed show in New Orleans.
From the continuous opening tracking shot that glides down the train’s narrow corridors, emerging in separate cars to encounter each of the bands engaged in lively rehearsal, director Emmett Malloy adopts imaginative shooting techniques throughout the film. Atmospheric footage of the striking landscapes the train traverses through California, Arizona and Texas sets the context of the musicians’ roots in the migratory, working-class American experience and provides scenic backdrops for impromptu track-side jam sessions. Creative use of lighting, black-and-white sequences and slow-motion techniques lends the film a distinct visual character, while superior sound recording and mixing bring the performances alive.
Despite mostly acoustic instrumentation, even on their own all three bands are powerhouse performers, fully committing to each set’s tunes. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros vocalist Alex Ebert may be the most energetic of the musicians, with his nonstop leaping and dancing onstage, but Mumford & Sons prove equally inspired, recruiting the Austin High School marching band to perform on their rave-up “The Cave.” Other highlights include the Zeros’ rendition of “Home” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s bluegrassy “Wagon Wheel.” The culmination of all the rehearsals on the train is an impressive three-band rendition of the Guthrie classic “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” performed at the final show in New Orleans.
Although barely over an hour in running time, Big Easy Express packs in an impressive array of musicianship, more than a few moments of joyous creative abandon and enough interludes of quiet contemplation to soak it all in. It’s an affirmation that although some of the greats may be gone, their visions still live on.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production companies: S2BN Films presents a Woodshed Films Production in association with B.E.E.
Director: Emmett Malloy
Producers: Tim Lynch, Mike Luba, Bryan Ling
Executive producer: Michael Cohl
Director of photography: Giles Dunning
Editor: Matt Murphy
No rating, 66 minutes
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