The opening scene of this music documentary is surprisingly fluid and arresting: We follow a young woman as she walks joyful, almost dancing, through a train. As she inexorably advances through the wagons, she runs into a wide array of musicians before finally joining her own band mates.
This girl is a member of the Los Angeles-based psychedelic group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, which embarked on a tour along London folk-country artists Mumford & Sons and Nashville bluegrass act Old Crow Medicine Show.
Filmmaker Emmett Malloy follows their journey, from Oakland to New Orleans, alternating between intimate sequences set on the train and energetic outdoor performances happening at various stops along the way.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a fan of any of these bands – which was my case – to enjoy this journey as they deliver fiery shows: Their energy prove to be contagious whether you are attending one of their shows or watching that documentary – and if you are listening to radio stations such as KCRW, chances are you are familiar with some of the songs played here.
That said, passed the interesting opening sequence, which fluid movements reminded me of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Big Easy Express quickly turns into one of those generic self-promoting pieces about bands rather than a real documentary film.
Mr. Malloy approaches his subject as a timid fan, just following those 3 bands passively, rather than offering an insight look at what’s really going on. He asks a few questions here and there but we don’t learn much. According to what we see, those musicians just play music innocently all day – and night – long, the director offering a somewhat innocent portrait of bands on tour. While I wasn’t expecting a depiction of Rolling Stones-like debauchery, a couple people do mention that there is some hard partying on this train but we never see anything. We never get to experience any trouble either except for a short moment when Texas cops refer to them as a bunch of hippies.
At the LA film festival screening, I noticed that a few people from the audience were on the train, but the director never takes the time either to go meet those fans who were following the bands. I was also particularly interested in seeing the reactions of locals in some “exotic” towns, but Mr. Malloy fails at delivering any kind of social/cultural commentary, even though those bands seem to be founded on now anachronic 60’s values.
Clocking at just over an hour, Big Easy Express seems surprisingly short and I’m sure that with several weeks of tour, there was enough material available to flesh this out a little more. The purpose of Mr. Malloy’s film seems to just serve the fans, which, to that extent, probably works.
By not extending his reach beyond the fan base and not broadening his subject, he however fails at delivering a satisfying documentary, making spectators like you and I miss this train.
Director: Emmett Malloy –Featuring: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Mumford & Sons – Running Time: 1:07 – Year: 2012 – Country: USA