2000, NR, 80 min. Directed by Todd Phillips.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 22, 2000
Early on in the documentary Bittersweet Motel, an adoring male fan of the Burlington, Vermont-based rock band Phish offers the film's most insightful take on the group's wild popularity: “If you're a dork, then be a dork,” he says with a grin. That offhand statement is at the heart of a film which manages to capture the essence of one of the world's most surprising success stories: Phish is a band by dorks and for dorks, and they unfurl their dork flag and let that sucker fly at every available opportunity. Formed in 1983 by University of Vermont freshman and frontman Trey Anastasio -- who looks less like a rock star than one of Bill Gates' microserfs -- the group takes its name from drummer Jon Fishman (prone to ambling onstage in oversized print dresses, and how dorky is that?). Along with bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell, Phish plays a hybrid of groovy, spacey, “don't harsh my mellow” rock & roll that owes more than a little to their spiritual and musical forebears, the Grateful Dead. Comparisons between the two groups have been promulgated for years, but there's none of Jerry Garcia's dope-addled cosmology on display in Anastasio. Phish is a kinder, gentler, less pharmaceutically enhanced version of San Francisco's long, strange trippers, who nevertheless have created their own cottage industry predicated on guitar noodling as ritual release. The most interesting thing about Phish is the fact that they've achieved the sort of global superstardom that ought to have, by now, made them a household name. They're not, though. Via a DIY work ethic, constant gigging, and an Internet-savvy fan base who -- like the Deadheads -- follow the band around the world, Phish has become the ultimate underground success story. Not bad for a band whose idea of a good show involves big balloons the audience can bat around while Anastasio chicken-necks his way around the stage. Phillips, who directed the caustic G.G. Allin documentary Hated while still a junior at NYU film school (and who also directed this past summer's feature Road Trip and the notorious documentary Frat House) comes to the film as a non-Phish-head, which is plainly why the band chose him to document their travels. As an outsider, Phillips is able to latch on to the outright weirdness of the Phish phenomenon. Where did these guys come from? And why are they so popular? Bittersweet Motel gamely tries to answer those two core questions but I'm still as mystified as I was going in. Isn't one Grateful Dead enough? There's little here to sway the anti-Phish crowds, but audiences unfamiliar with the band's work will likely find all this Woodstockana vaguely appealing, especially in the wake of last year's ghastly, abusive Woodstock '99. As a pair of stoned male Phish fans comment, “We're not here to score, man, but if it happens, that's cool with us.” That's the kind of hazy rhetoric that rock & roll could use, and while Phillips cuts in footage of the band dry-firing .357-caliber Magnum revolvers while on tour in an unnamed European city, the general tone of the film, like the band, is strictly laissez-faire, dude. Now if only Phillips could take time out from his newly crowded features schedule to find out what's up with mook-rock icons Limp Bizkit, we could all find out if those crazy kids are really all right or not.