Published Dec 01, 2000From director Todd Phillips comes a highly anticipated film documenting the antics and anxieties of renowned jam band Phish. "Bittersweet Motel," which gets its name from the song of the same title, is your typical rockumentary with live concert footage, interviews and a "behind the scenes" look at the band as people instead of just the phenomenon most of us are familiar with.
If you are crawling out from under your rock to read this article and are not familiar with the band at all, Phish is simply a group of four very talented and tight musicians from Vermont. Their music is a blend of such genres as funk, jazz, performance art, ambient, bluegrass, country, and good old fashioned rock and roll. Now mind you, there is a little more to Phish than that, but sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the stigma and forget the musicians.
Since 1983, Phish has gathered an eclectic following akin to, but usually younger than the Grateful Dead's Deadheads. In the film, like at their shows, you will see whirling dervishes, giggling pixies, dreaded fools and a mish-mash of grinning, tripping, dancing (always dancing) neo-hippies. Of course it is easy to resort to these clichés when describing the group and their fans since there is some truth to them, (see the pretty, hippy-dippy dancing girl halfway through the film), but you may also be surprised at how many "tame" fans attend for the appreciation of fine musicianship as well as the party. Like the Dead in their later years especially, Phish has grown to attract a broad spectrum of classes, cultures and personalities.
With a dozen albums released by Elektra, but not a charting single in the bunch, people have to wonder how Phish can attract 70,000 people from around the world to an abandoned air strip in the middle of Nowhere, Maine for three days. Or how about the gathering of over 75,000 for New Years 2000 at a Seminole Indian reservation in Florida, the largest Millennium celebration in the world? They even have their own flavour of Ben & Jerry's ice cream! With footage from the above mentioned Great Went festival in Limestone, their following tour of Europe and the New Years celebration of 98/'99 in Madison Square Gardens, among other shows, Todd Phillips offers us a glance of how this band and their music have captured the attention and devotion of so many. It's not just Todd that has taken a interest in the band recently either. In fact, Phish have finally been nominated for two awards in the upcoming 43rd annual Grammy celebration.
"Bittersweet Motel" does not have any of the controversy of his previous award winning documentaries such as 1993's "Hated" the G.G. Allin story, or 1997's "Frat House" a disturbing look at the extreme behaviours of a particular college fraternity. Nor does it have the Lampooning of his more recent and renown film, "Road Trip" featuring Canada's own marvel Tom Green, but it does offer the viewer a brief glimpse of what is going on back stage and on the road with this infamous quatro.
We get to see Trey (guitarist and lead singer) react to media criticisms of their fans' rabid loyalty and the group's often confusing lyrics. We also get to hear Fishman (drummer and vacuumist) tell stories of their early years, paying their dues at nightmare venues like all young bands. Even more interesting though is the explanation for Trey's awkward and humorous facial expressions during his performances. These tidbits of reality (as real as you can be with a film crew following you) are intriguing, but unfortunately they are also few and far between in the film. I would have liked to have learned more about the band on a personal level, perhaps sacrificing a little of the live concert footage.
Regardless, for the Phish aficionado, "Bittersweet" will remind you of the shows you attended, with performances of such gems as "Golgi Apparatus," "Tweezer," Edgar Winter's "Frakenstein," "Simple," "Punch You in the Eye," and a whole slew more. Hearing the music, and seeing the shows I personally was at, revived that rush of adrenaline and happiness always accompanying their shows. Since their recent announcement of a temporary sabbatical, "Bittersweet" is the best we will get until the reunion, so go lap it up.
For those unfamiliar with the group or their music, or those who only know of them as the band that plays that hippie trash for drugged out freaks, this film will offer you a chance to see the band outside of the stereotypes, in extreme close ups, warts and all. (And trust me, these guys are no Backstreet Boys.) In my opinion, this should remind you that not only Phish, but any other cultural icon in the entertainment industry is still a human being. In this case, they are four human beings making music they love, who inadvertently created a subculture and phenomenon both wonderful and fascinating. Todd Phillips captures this with respect and admiration, and I think even the non-Phish-heads will leave the film with new respect and admiration for the group.