October 5, 2000

Phishing for Substance

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“Come waste your time with me” croons Phish’s lead singer and guitarist, Trey Anastasio, during a live rendition of “Waste” in the band’s documentary, Bittersweet Motel. If you are a Phishead (i.e., a fan of the band and its quirky, upbeat lyrics and unique, notoriously drug-induced concert experiences), than this may be an appealing proposition. If, however, you have never heard of the band or if your knowledge of Phish is limited to popular hits such as “Bouncing ‘Round the Room” and “Free,” than this movie is a waste of time.

The film follows several Phish tours around the globe. The focus is indisputably on Anastasio, whose love of music and lack of pretense is impressive and attractive to fans interested in the unglamorous purity of Phish’s vision.

Keyboardist Page McConnell, bass player Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman are focused on significantly less. Accordingly, these band members are generally detached throughout the film.

If Anastasio’s domination prohibits a full understanding of the rest of the band, then the live shows that rule Bittersweet Motel prohibit a full understanding of the music.

Viewers will be given little insight into Phish’s inspiration and purpose, or other important pieces of information that are usually revealed in a documentary. In place of this, the current work delivers concert after concert and is little more than a film representation of a live CD.

Equally unfortunate is the brevity with which director Todd Phillips (Road Trip) deals with Phish’s fascinatingly loyal clan of groupies. Shots of phollowers are limited to dancing, pot-smoking, and profoundly informative comments such as “everyone here is chill.”

Bittersweet Motel is at its best, as are so many music documentaries, when the dialogue is muted, the visuals are slowed, and the band’s soundtrack is blasting in the background.

Fans will undoubtedly feel satisfied that this documentary is Phish’s story as the band itself would tell it: laid-back, musically-focused, and dedicated to the connection between the band members and followers that emerges during live shows. And for the most ardent fans, the film may create what Anastasio describes as “a mutual piece of art” between Phish and fan.

If neither of these titles applies to you, well, this one’s not for you. Try again.

Archived article by Laura Finkelstein