Phish, the New England-based rock band often called the leading legacy-bearers of the now-defunct Grateful Dead – a resemblance striking both musically and in their neo-hippie fan base – tends to divide listeners into love ’em/hate ’em camps. “Bittersweet Motel,” a well-crafted tour diary by director Todd Phillips (“Road Trip”), won’t change that much. Well-made if not particularly insightful docu should be catnip to Phishheads, while the previously unconverted are likely to stay that way. Gradual rollout to specialty U.S. theaters this fall, mostly for limited engagements, will no doubt be followed by a long shelf life on campus and rep-house calendars.
Founded at the U. of Vermont nearly two decades ago, the quartet has managed to build a huge cult following despite so-so album sales and scant support from music critics, radio and MTV. Crux of their appeal are live shows in which spur-of-the-moment set lists and lengthy “jams” highlight their skill as instrumentalists while stoking the collective-party atmosphere in which their polyglot compositions (drawing on ’70s rock, prog jazz, folk, funk, et al.) come off best.
On disc, where the dippy lyrics, mediocre singing, retro-boogie vibe and oft-understructured songs are harder to ignore, Phish can seem less persuasive, not to mention a lot more indulgent. Pic won’t alter myriad naysayers’ biases, since Phillips’ tendency to drop right into the meandering midsection of a tune allows little opportunity for performances to weave a spell.
“Their music just kinda winds together,” gushes one typically adoring if inarticulate fan here, and that statement suggests both its goofy pot-haze appeal and somewhat exasperating lack of form or originality.
As seen here, band members themselves are Regular Guys to the nth degree – a virtual Charisma-Free Zone – and their offstage horsing around is harmless but pretty sophomoric. Phillips asks the occasional mildly provocative question, but the responses, mostly from guitarist Trey Anastasio, prove underwhelming re: bad reviews (“Sometimes it’s, like, critics, what’s the deal?”), artistic self-image (“I do take it seriously – cuz it gets me off!”), and so on.
There’s no insight into players’ personal lives; nor do glimpses backstage or in rehearsal shed much light. While hardly a critical analysis of the Phish phenom, pic does nothing to suggest there’s a whole lotta gray matter involved in either band’s mission or fans’ admiration.
Tracing a 1997 tour schedule, feature moves from East Coast dates to a European jaunt (where their audiences still seem to consist mostly of white, college-aged Yanks), then on to a two-day “festival” (albeit one with no supporting acts). As 70,000 patrons overwhelm the tiny Maine host town, this last stretch provides most amusing sustained glimpses of the Phishhead legions, a beer-drinking, bong-toting, nitrous-sucking lot reliv-ing the 1960s on strictly recreational terms.
Phillips’ camera does not refrain from ogling young female fans, clad or unclad, in full twirly-dancing jiggle.
Concert segs benefit from richly colored stage lighting and good editing of multicamera coverage. Sound recording is high-grade throughout, other tech aspects pro.