New documentary on a magical music railway journey through the American South West.

HUCK talks to Emmett Malloy about his new documentary on a magical music railway journey through the American South West.

In April 2011, three folk bands –  Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic ZerosOld Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons – headed off to tour the American South West together. But their method of transport was somewhat unusual: a vintage train dating back to the early 1900s. They boarded in Oakland, California, and followed the tracks through the great American outdoors, playing shows at stops along the way with a grand finale in New Orleans. And along for the ride was filmmaker Emmett Malloy, who documented the sights, sounds and bonhomie in his new film, Big Easy Express.

“This movie became all about channelling a good vibe and musicians really getting swept up in this incredible tour. The bands ended up being a perfect fit for one and another. At the end of it all, it was the music that became my best friend [as a filmmaker],” says Emmett, with the final cut of the movie keeping the talk and the platitudes to a minimum so as to let the music speak for itself.

Indeed, the journey would end up becoming a near non-stop musical maelstrom for those involved. Once the live shows were over at each stop, the 150-strong crew would jump back aboard the train to carry on the journey with informal jams and good-hearted singalongs. This experience saw Emmett paint a picture of a near-mythical journey with all seemingly thrilled to be taking part in what Marcus Mumford from the Mumford & Sons describes as a ‘tour of dreams’.

“I was not expecting the energy to be as alive as it was. The music that was going down all through the day and night just became so contagious and energetic,” says Emmett, who at one point joined in with Mumford & Sons to play the tamborine. “There was always somebody, a different group of guys jamming in this car and that car. That was so inspiring for me and started to feel enough for the film. […] I sat down with some band members to do some interviews and help tell the story, but I realised that those were the uninteresting parts of it.”

However, the art of capturing live music on film is a tricky thing, in part due to intangible nature of a ‘vibe’ existing beyond the realms of mere sight and sound. It’s something that Emmett is well-versed in as a filmmaker though, having directed videos for the likes of Foo FightersMetallica and Weezer. And it shows in the final film, with Emmett somehow managing to get the good times vibe oozing from the screen – with cheers, smiles and claps helping along the way.

“It’s very difficult to [capture a vibe] if it’s not there. I’ve had to really manufacture it on previous occasions and I know how to do it well but it’s never the inspiring part as a filmmaker,” he says. “With these guys, they were really swept up in it […] It was a unique experience. It was contagious and it kept me on my toes the whole time. There was never a moment where we could take a breather. […] And the response [the film] has got is a tribute to the fact that it was a good journey to jump on. I’m glad I didn’t screw it up!”