Director Emmett Malloy has returned with an excellent follow up to 2009’s “Under Great Northern Lights” with another winning concert documentary titled “Big Easy Express.” In a tight 60-odd minutes, the film follows three bands, Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Old Crow Medicine Show, as they travel from San Francisco to New Orleans, Louisiana, on a sold-out 6-stop tour, aboard the most beautiful-looking train you’ve ever seen. From the opening tracking shot that follows ‘Magnetic Zeroes’ singer Jade Castrinos as she walks through the various rustic train cars, past Mumford and Sons playing in one, ‘Old Crow’ in another and right down the back to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Malloy’s film is not only beautifully soundtracked, courtesy of all three bands, but is also dreamily captured.
Though essentially a live concert film, Malloy manages to chronicle the more intimate and visually arresting jam sessions happening off stage, either on one of the ornate train cars, or outside in the desert under the stunningly blue sky. With all the constant musical sequences, sometimes running one after the other, “Big Easy Express” can come off as an extended music video, which is not an altogether bad thing, as Malloy knows how to make a shot perfectly glossy, yet still manage to capture the live energy of the performance.
Malloy does feature short snippets of interviews with various band members (though Edward Sharpe is notably absent from these) but little more than how the bands know each other, how they love each other’s music and being on the train tour, is really discussed. Questions like the logistical nature of the tour or where the idea came from are left unanswered. This is not an insightful documentary about any of the bands individually, instead the film chooses to focus on their mutual, earnest and clearly passionate love of performing.
Instead of the usual boring grind of touring a la Radiohead‘s “Meeting People Is Easy,” “Big Easy Express” is a celebration of the romantic Woody Guthrie-cum-Jack Kerouac ideal of being on the road. You’d think with 100-odd people jammed onto a train for a week-and-a-half there would be some personal dramas, but according to the band members, despite some bathing less than others, it was nothing less than a love fest between all.
Malloy knows when to leave a good thing as well, and though die-hard fans could probably do with more live footage of each of the bands, this is something probably better served by DVD extras. The extended multi-band finale performance of Guthrie’s “This Train is Bound for Glory” made up of a filmic collage from various performances is definitely a live highlight, and fan or not, its hard to deny the joy and skill that the musicians bring to the stage.
Both Malloy and cinematographer Giles Dunning (who also worked on “Under Great White Northern Lights”) have a great eye for framing their shots, whether it be the vintage 1940s, 15-car silvery train coming round the bend, or the dramatic canyons and cloud bursting sky flying by through the top car window. Though Malloy mainly shot on digital, there are some great-looking snippets of 16-mm and Super 8 footage as well that add some fantastic texture to the film.
Though live-in-concert docs are often considered just for fans, “Big Easy Express” is a celebration of music in general (albeit for the more roots-folksy-country inclined) and it also serves as a lyrically shot travelogue, one that is sure to fuel some road trip style wanderlust. [B]