If watching people wax poetic about peace, love, and music makes you cringe, then Big Easy Express, which was shot during the 2011 Railroad Revival Tour, is almost certainly not for you. However, if you're a fan of any of the bands featured in this movie, or if you can't get enough of people who are head-over-heels in love with their musical calling, then by all means hop on board.
Since I'm firmly in the second group — I even made a 10-hour drive last year to catch the Old Crow, Edward Sharpe, and Mumford show in New Orleans — I found plenty to love here. The premise of Emmett Malloy's simple, pure-of-heart documentary is really a question: what kind of magic happens when three folksy bands hop on a train and traverse the U.S. of A? The answer's pretty predictable — they make tons of great music together — but it's still fun to go along for the ride.
The opening sequence is one of the best in a film that's chock full of great cinematography. It clearly sets up the spirit of Big Easy Express, which mingles nostalgia for the lost West with a love of the open road and, most of all, an appreciation for the overwhelming power of music. Beginning with an outside shot of a desert landscape seen from the top of a train, the camera then ducks inside to find Jade Castrinos, frontwoman of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Castrinos leads us through the train cars, where first Mumford and Sons, then Old Crow Medicine Show, then her own band are jamming together. After stopping to dance her heart out with each band, she moves on to the next. The effect is one of Alice falling (or skipping, in this case) down a shuddering, musical rabbit hole into another world.
From there, we get a quick intro to the tour and the train with the guys of Old Crow, but after that there's precious little talking. Malloy divides his shots mainly between life on the train and the bands' live performances, save for a couple of scripted voice-overs by Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe, and a few moments here and there with members of the other two bands. It's almost like the documentary was filmed by an invisible crew. This, oddly enough, is another of the film's triumphs, since Malloy's soft touch seems to have prompted his subjects to be unusually candid. And candor is not the easiest thing to draw out of performers for whom putting on a show is second nature.
Live concert footage is taken from each of the six stops on the tour, and fans of all bands will be satisfied with their faves' screen time. In addition to clips from multi-band jam sessions, Malloy gives us full songs by Mumford, Old Crow, and Edward Sharpe. After each tour stop, we hop back on the train with them for some more intimate partying and music-making, interspersed with landscape sequences shot from the top of the train or from inside the glass-topped observation car.
Some will surely criticize Big Easy Express for its idealistic, wide-eyed approach, but as most fans would probably agree, it's the only approach that could have worked. The Railroad Revival Tour was always a smiling, singing-with-your-eyes-closed affair, not a story of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Everyone needs a break from the snark sometimes. Hippies singing in the desert can be a nice change.