Breezy film catches fun of cult fave Phish

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michael Janusonis / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

Like Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at a band on the road in 1973, director Todd Phillips's documentary Bittersweet Motel takes an up-close look at cult fave Phish as it tours the United States and Europe, ending at a two-day concert that drew 70,000 to a small Maine town.

Despite its title, there's nothing very bittersweet about Bittersweet Motel. Phillips, who most recently directed the zany campus hit Road Trip, has crafted a breezy film. Shot in 1997 and '98 and edited out of chronological order, it's heavy on the mellow sounds of musicians Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Page McConnell. They have the easy camaraderie of old friends, making for a pleasant stay at Bittersweet Motel.

The band was formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont; keyboardist McConnell joined in '85. But Bittersweet Motel is pretty light on its history. There's not a lot of introspection, just a brief recollection of a rough start when audiences didn't seem to know what to make of them.

The film also gives only a sideways glance to the latter-day hippies who trail the band to every concert date, a traveling tie-dyed phenomenon that has led Phish to being labeled the direct descendants of The Grateful Dead. At one stop, a young woman wearing butterfly wings calls them "full of freedom; full of happiness." Later, several young men are seen gearing up for a concert by getting high.

Oddly, however, the Phish bandmates themselves seem the antithesis of the drug culture. They're so squeaky clean that on their bus they sip bottled water and eat fruit. And they practice in arena hallways before stepping on stage. They've won their devoted following by never doing the same show twice. This can be risky, but keeps them fresh.

Although the Phish guys are in their mid-30s, they still have the rumpled look of slightly geeky college kids who have just emerged from a late '60s time warp. Phish come across as nice guys who are passionate about their music and having a good time at what they do.

The unflappabable Anastasio, the lead singer, is also the group's genial mouthpiece. There's nothing self-aggrandizing about him. Accessible, he modestly describes himself as an American suburban kid from New Jersey whose major musical "influence" was the stuff he heard playing at the mall. "Bigness . . . the fame can destroy what you set out to do," he says.

Later, as the novelty of having a camera crew following them around starts wearing off, Phish begins to find the whole idea of a movie about themselves unnerving and self-serving. Yet they're refreshingly unselfconscious before the camera, not unlike The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, playfully agreeing to pose for photos with fans on a beach in Europe, then aiming the camera so every shot cuts off their heads.

Phillips uses lots of closeups for an in-your-face approach to their concerts. There's nothing startling here, just solid camera work and well-honed musicianship on such songs as When the Circus Comes and Wilson.

What's more memorable is a sense of the fun of a Phish concert. Phillips captures them battling huge balloons that roll onstage during their 1997 New Year's Eve concert at Madison Square Garden. Later, even Phish are awed as they end their Maine concert by setting fire to the artwork that was created by fans and themselves during the two-day event.

That Maine concert drew 70,000 fans and briefly turned the hamlet of Limestone, which normally has a population of 2,000, into Maine's largest city. It became Neverland East . . . Woodstock without the mud and with only one band on the program.

Like a Phish concert, you can expect the unexpected from Bittersweet Motel. If you're not a Phish fan going in, you may well be one coming out.


Bittersweet Motel

Starring : Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell.

Producers: An Image Entertainment release directed by Todd Phillips.

Rated : Not rated, contains nudity, profanity.

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.