Emmett Malloy (who directed the White Stripes concert film Under Great White Northern Lights) has put together this beautiful folkumentary about three bands’ journey aboard a vintage train through the Arizona desert, playing concerts and jamming until the early hours of the morning. The three bands in question are the UK’s Mumford & Sons, LA’s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show. Neither road movie, straight up music documentary, nor concert film, Malloy blends elements of the above into a gentle, toe-tapping film sure to be loved by lovers of nu-folk and modern bluegrass.
Shot mostly on 16mm, this film is a very pretty thing to look at. The aesthetics are exactly as you would expect. Attractive young men and women float around barefoot in linen dresses playing on banjos in front of a swollen orange sunset. Dusty open roads unfold before the camera; the lens captures a shaft of light as it hits the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performing in front of a bustling crowd. It’s all gorgeous. Even Mumford & Sons body odour is romanticised. The moment Old Crow Medicine Show started talking about Mumford’s lack of cleanliness as some sort of impoverished bohemian band of brothers schmaltz, I had to snort: Mumford & Sons may be talented musicians, but those plummy British accents didn’t emerge from the side of a coal-stained freight train in the 1900s, but rather the nicer end of the British private education system. Which is allowed, but you know, let’s not get carried away here.
Big Easy Express is so well-intentioned, so hemp-wearingly earnest that to poke fun at it would be like tripping up a hippy in a soup kitchen. I will not be that person. What interested me about this film, and what went beyond the nice music and pretty shots, was its surprising lack of irony (fairly unusual for contemporary music docs - or anything, come to think of it, these days). Pretty bearded folk and ladies with gushing curls and bowl cuts talk about ‘leaving everything behind’ and ‘heading for the open road’, as we see them jamming under the stars or playing a fiddle barefoot on the train. The rhetoric here clearly harks back on the well-trodden path of the American troubadours of yesteryear – this is the world of Woody Guthrie’s train 'bound for glory', Jack Kerouac’s open road of kicks and chicks; Elizabeth Cotton’s song 'Freight Train', later sung by artists like Joan Baez, Mike Seeger and Taj Mahal; or Bob Dylan’s curiously repetitive paintings of train tracks. Neither the film nor the musicians reference this, and in some ways that’s quite refreshing. Steeped in American mythology, but playing it out as a unique adventure. Fair enough.
For someone riddled with cynicism (and not being a huge fan of nu-folk), I’m probably not the target audience here. But what matters is that the music is genuinely beautiful, the pacing perfect, the American landscape gorgeously shot, and its intentions – to return back to a romanticised Americana where people lived simply, playing music and sharing good times with friends – is so well meaning that I can’t fault the film for what it is.
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