If the online homemade crafts site Etsy were a documentary about musicians, it’d probably be something like “Big Easy Express.” This is the movie-watching equivalent of removing a screen-printed organic cotton cloth napkin from a hand-painted antique hutch and using it as a kerchief. I mean, it sounds fun being trapped on a moving train with Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Each band practices a complementary variation of folk. Mumford & Sons, the most commercially popular, skew toward rock. Sharpe and the Zeros do ornate California bohemianism. And the Old Crow Medicine Show is a pleasingly smoky amalgam of country, bluegrass, and blues.
But because this short, happy movie mercifully includes footage of the shows they play away from the train, you realize that all three bands benefit from the open air of the concert stage, especially Sharpe and the Zeros, a group with a lot of members and twice the energy. The director Emmett Malloy follows a 2011 tour the bands took together from Oakland down to San Pedro in California, over to Marfa and Austin in Texas, then east to New Orleans. Malloy’s filming-on-a-moving-train conceit produces only a lot of precious, ponderous encounters between the bands and the camera.
The movie opens with a tracking shot in which the camera trails behind Jade Castrinos, a singer in the Zeros, as she skips from car to car dropping in on the other bands until she winds up with her own. Castrinos wears a sundress and a knapsack and is as simpering and twee as I’ve ever seen her. Meanwhile, in a folksy voiceover, the band’s frontman, Alex Ebert, puts the train trip this way:
“I think we’re gonna say, ‘Yeah, we’re playing music on a train with the country, across the country to see it the way they saw it more than a hundred years ago when we were all children. Dreaming. To lift ourselves and the world we come in contact with back into the magic.’”
The movie is full of this kind of self-conscious, self-styled, newfangled old-fashioned, modern-vintage. Occasionally, it all produces a great musical moment, such as when the Mumfords meet the Austin High School marching band. I could watch a whole movie of that or even of Ebert undulating on stage with his black pants and tunic and Christly hair and beard. He’s like a New Testament yoga instructor.
Otherwise, the movie is all conceit most of the time. Though, for what it’s worth, the train is a pre-Amtrak, California Zephyr Silver Lariat, and vintage-vintage.