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This Phish Doesn't Flop

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2000


In this age of round-the-clock VH1 documentaries-Behind the Music! . . . Where Are They Now? . . . Why Are They Still Here?-is there room for an old-fashioned rockumentary? Phish seems to think so and in 1997, it entrusted that duty to director Todd Phillips, whose previous films were "Hated," a disturbing low-budget documentary about punk masochist (and eventual suicide) G.G. Allin, and "Frat House," which won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival but was shelved after its severely offended subjects threatened numerous lawsuits. More recently, Phillips directed the blockbuster MTV comedy movie "Road Trip."

"Bittersweet Motel" is much more in the good-time spirit of that last effort. Which makes sense because Phish is an essentially genial jam band that's been burdened with accurate but unfair comparisons to the Grateful Dead. That's because their set changes every concert, they don't rely on radio play, video exposure or album sales, instead building a huge fan base (that follows them Deadhead style) through constant touring. "They don't know what's going to happen just like we don't know what's going to happen," says bassist Mike Gordon, pondering the fans' loyalty.

Phish do write some fine songs – included here are "Birds of a Feather," "Waste," the countryfied "Water in the Sky," a Hendrix-y "Wilson" – and in guitarist Trey Anastasio, they have a virtuosic instrumentalist who fills, however reluctantly, the Jerry Garcia chair. Anastasio also does much of the talking in this 80-minute film and proves occasionally profound, more often mischievious. In fact, all four members – the others are drummer Jon Fishman and keyboardist Page McConnell – seem wonderfully unnaffected by their current status as one of the biggest touring bands in America.

Phillips trailed Phish for two years through different locales – informal Vermont rehearsals, an arena concert in New York, a string of dates in small European clubs. For a grand finale, there was the band's own three-day Great Went festival, which drew 70,000 people to Limestone, Maine (normal population: 2,000), transforming it, albeit briefly, into Maine's largest city. This segment feels a bit like "Woodstock," except for the part where a photographer organizes a group portrait of hundreds of naked concertgoers.

Thankfully, Phillips doesn't dwell on the band's history or belabor the fan angle, opting instead to underscore backstage/on-the-road camaraderie and, most importantly, to focus on the music. The technical credits are all solid; and bless cinematographer Elia Lyssy for keeping her lens steady and straight-on and editor Alan Oxman for eschewing the frenetic jumpcuts that are so overdone in rockumentaries. As a result, you don't have to be a Phishead to enjoy "Bittersweet Motel."

BITTERSWEET MOTEL (Unrated, 80 minutes). – Contains 1,200 very naked Phisheads. At the American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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