In the opening scene of Big Easy Express, Jade Castrinos, singer for folk troubadours Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, is seen frolicking between train cars. The setting is last spring’s Railroad Revival Tour, a multi-day jaunt that found Castrinos’ band, Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show traveling by a 14-car train from Oakland to New Orleans, playing six concerts along the way.
As Castrinos moves, the camera never cuts away. She encounters Old Crow, then the Mumfords and finally her own multi-piece band, each happily jamming away in their moving residences. “I needed to evoke this feeling that you’re in a very cinematic journey,” director Emmett Malloy tells Rolling Stone of the immersive introduction to his emotional journey-slash-documentary.
The train-tour – which will return this fall with different artists – and its accompanying documentary (which will be released on iTunes on June 26th and made available on Blu-Ray/DVD on July 24th) came to Malloy’s attention after the Edward Sharpe camp connected with Jack Johnson during a meet-up in Hawaii and the singer-songwriter recommended Malloy, his longtime friend and manager.
Malloy, whose 2010 film, Under Great White Northern Lights, captured the White Stripes’ 2007 journey across Canada, was no stranger to documenting a musical voyage. “This is a film I knew how to make well,” he says. After learning of the project, Malloy met over breakfast in L.A. with Alex Ebert, frontman for Edward Sharpe. “He had his omelette, broke it down and we were off and running,” Malloy explains. The film, Malloy says, was inspired by the 2003 documentary Festival Express, which centered on the 1970 Canadian railway tour featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band. But he wanted to flip the script. “I’ve always loved that film, but it always kills me when I watch it, because it didn’t really document the moment.”
So while Big Easy Express embraces the tour’s unique mode of transportation, it’s just as much a celebration of the communal spirit that the setting facilitated among the bands. “We are all the same, all three bands,” Old Crow Medicine Show singer Willie Watson says early in the film. “Even the Mumfords are pretty grimy. They’ve got grease and mustard stains on their pants just like us.” The unity among the bands also shows its face through many late-night, post-concert jam sessions that Malloy recalls lasting until five or six in the morning. “A lot of times four or five band members can’t even get their shit together,” he says. “These were big bands, a lot of different personalities from different parts of the world, and there wasn’t even one weird tense moment.”
For Malloy, Big Easy Express also needed to paint a vivid portrait of the largely-unseen, majestic side of America that he encountered aboard the train. “I had all this orchestrated stuff that I thought would be cool to do,” he says. “But when we got on the train we realized we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t get on and off the train except where we got on to leave and where we were getting off to load into the venue. There was no wiggle room.” To that end, the filmmaker stuck his lens out the window of the train as often as possible, capturing shots of Arizona and Texas’ rolling deserts and sweeping flatlands. “It probably didn’t look that much different for Woody Guthrie when he was looking at it,” he says.
After arriving in New Orleans at journey’s end, Malloy felt confident that “our country is alive and well and is as beautiful as anywhere in the world.” What other revelations did the experience bring to light? Says the director, “I felt like I needed a shower really bad.”