By Rob Bradfield
“Big Easy Express,” documentary director Emmett Malloy’s rail-riding music documentary, made its first stop in Austin on the final day of SXSW.
The film tells the story of British-based folk group Mumford & Sons, Los Angeles indie band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Nashville bluegrass band Old Crow Medicine Show as they travel from Oakland, Calif., to New Orleans by train.
“At the core of it, it’s this amazing journey,” Malloy said.
In the past, Malloy has worked on documentaries with such artists as Jack Johnson and the White Stripes.
“Big Easy Express” follows Mumford and Sons’ Railroad Revival Tour as they play at different venues across the country, including stops in Marfa and Austin. It features footage of live performances, as well as the almost constant impromptu music on the train as it traveled.
As the journey progresses, the different styles and characteristics of the groups seem to blend and enhance each other. Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert dancing barefoot in a night shirt doesn’t seem out of place next to the country boy look of Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s as if during the time on the train, three different bands turn into one huge supergroup.
One of the high points of the film is the performance with the Austin High School marching band. When performing in Austin in 2011, the three bands picked up a chorus of young musicians to play with them at their show.
Professional and high school musicians all had a look of sheer joy plastered on their faces as crowds raved during a performance of Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave.” Some of the same musicians were even brought back later that night for the public screening at the LBJ Library.
This film’s premiere also featured a special question and answer session with Malloy and Mumford & Sons front man Marcus Mumford.
Mumford, who has played in front of huge audiences including President Barack Obama, almost looked small and sheepish when speaking to the packed theater.
“I feel much more self-conscious now than we ever did on the train,” Mumford said.
Mumford did express a sense of wonder and camaraderie that was echoed by all the musicians in the film. When Mumford & Sons took the stage with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros after the performance, their effect on each other was immediately apparent.
According to Mumford, the musicians back stage were getting emotional remembering the trip they took, and that came through in their music. Mumford & Sons’ performance of their new song “Where Are You Now” conveyed a slight sadness at leaving something, as if it was remembering fondly the good times that were had on the train tour.
Through Malloy’s film, those feelings were shared with the audience in that theater. We shared the fun, and the beauty of a musical train tour across some of the most awesome scenes in America.
The excitement of the audiences and the unbridled happiness of the musicians gave the film an infectious energy that shone brighter whenever there was music playing.
Even though no outsider could really comprehend the enormity of the tour, Malloy’s movie made you feel, even if just for a second, that you were part of that wonderful experience.