If ever there were a concert pic that didn’t need 3D to create an immersive theatrical experience, it’s “Phish 3D,” as all the dancing, toking and glowstick-throwing on stereoscopic display are likely to be rivaled by the same activity in the theater for this one-week engagement. With music that should thrill the faithful and gradually wear down the resolve of the dubious, the band is in top form throughout, though unimaginative camerawork and an exceptionally narrow focus prevent pic from being any more than a consolation prize to fans who missed seeing the show in person.
This 135-minute film was lensed during last October’s Festival 8 concert in Indio, Calif., in which fans camped out for three days to hear the newly reunited Vermont jam band tackle eight separate sets. There are few contemporary artists capable of putting up 16 hours of music without repeating themselves, and even fewer with a fan base that would stick around long enough to watch it: Phish devotees are among the strangest and most intense in the pop-music world, so it’s a shame the filmmakers largely ignore the 40,000 charged-up, Halloween-costumed potential subjects screaming for camera time right in front of them.
More than any previous targets of such 3D concert coverage, Phish is a rather stationary group; its five members rarely budging from their individual onstage carpets, amid staging and lighting that never rise above the default arena-rock tricks. By itself, this isn’t a problem — Phish has never intended to challenge Gwar for onstage spectacle — though the filmmakers do the band little favor by largely repeating the same five or six shots (closeup of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s fretboard, static shot of keyboardist Page McConnell’s head, sweeping pan around the drum kit, etc.) over and over, often edited in the exact same sequence.
Divided into three parts, the film focuses on a typical nighttime set, a daytime acoustic set and then a Halloween night “costume party,” in which the band plays the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” in its entirety. The two bookend sets are the best, with the first a nice primer on the band’s general m.o., and the latter a demonstration of how much fun the band appears to be having once it’s latched onto a groove (enlivened further by spitfire soul revivalist Sharon Jones’ appearance as a backup singer). Die-hards will likely thrill to see the band’s first all-acoustic set, though non-converts (and this reviewer is admittedly one) may find it exhaustingly windy.
The noodliness of that midsection is notably absent elsewhere — the default term jam-band cynics tend to throw around when describing such groups is “self-indulgent,” but Phish is rarely that here. While long, the band’s improvs tend to take off with an ultimate destination in mind, avoiding the “song that won’t die” syndrome that often afflicted the Grateful Dead.
Helmers Lawrence Jordan and Eli Tishberg deserve hazard pay for attempting to boil down 16 hours of music into a little more than two hours of screen time, in spite of Phish’s notoriously completist supporters. Still, mere minute-long snatches of footage of the camping area and the band in rehearsal seem to be little more than cruel teases for an inevitable extended version of the film on DVD.
Sound quality is largely excellent (although bassist Mike Gordon tends to be lost in the shuffle), and 3D work is solid and resolutely non-gimmicky, if also not particularly exciting.