Did you know that Todd Philips, the director of “The Hangover,” “The Hangover Part II” and “The Hangover Part III” once made a documentary about Phish? It's quite possible there's no marriage of author and subject matter that could hold less appeal, but I'm here to convince you that 2000's “Bittersweet Motel” (shot on 16mm, to give you the warm and fuzzies) is actually quite good.
Right now Phish – the band you remember from college – is on fire. They continue to sell out arenas to their devoted followers on a rigorous tour schedule. The fans, many of them more cogent than you might think, will tell you they are playing as well as they ever have. (Except for '98, man.) After two hiatuses, a drug bust and a dalliance with Broadway their four-hour shows don't just feature a new set-list each night, but radically different (and oftentimes never repeated) versions of their elaborate compositions. The experimental jams, eclectic musical tangents, complex time-signatures, expansive improvisation, unorthodox instrumentation, surreal lyrics with recurring gags and an in-house mythos, unending well of classic rock covers, elaborate lighting design, occasional foray into extreme barbershop quartet and, once in a while, trampoline choreography culminates in a show that has, in my opinion, something for everyone.
Their usual Halloween gag is to appear in a “musical costume” and do a set that interprets a known album in its entirety. Search the internet for their versions of The Beatles' “White Album,” The Who's “Quadrophenia,” Talking Heads' “Remain in Light,” the Velvet Underground's “Loaded,” Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon” (technically, this wasn't on Halloween, this was a few days after “Loaded,” during the mythical 1998 run), the Rolling Stones' “Exile on Main Street,” and Little Feat's “Waiting for Columbus.” This year the ever-unpredictable group did something no one saw coming. Their costume was “Phish of The Future,” covering their own album that hadn't been released yet. 92 year-old Abe Vigoda showed up in a furry wombat suit to dance.
They are actually in the studio right now with legendary producer Bob Ezrin recording this material for the forthcoming “Wingsuit,” so if you were ever looking for a jumping off point to become a fan (or, yes yes, a “phan”) now's a pretty good time. And Phillips' documentary (easily found in its entirety on a website that rhymes with ShoeLube) works as a terrific get-to-know-you.
Phillips' career trajectory back in the late 1990s wouldn't have predicted where he is today. He came out of the gate as something of an enfant terrible of “impure” documentary. His first feature “Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies” was spawned from a student project at NYU. (He dropped out to complete the film.) The film featured punk rocker Allin defecating on stage at Space at Chase (now the gentrified sports bar Nevada Smith's) and causing a freakout at the Loeb Student Center – a performance Philips put together knowing it would lead to mayhem. As a marvelous gift of free publicity to Phillips, Allin dropped dead a few days after the premiere.
It may sound like a joke now, but back in 1994 it was considered shocking when to see an interview subject accidentally say a woman's name (the person who agreed to urinate in Allin's mouth,) quickly ask for it to be cut out, hear an off-screen Phillips said “sure” and then, of course, realize that he never did.
“Hated” was followed-up by the Sundance-winning “Frat House,” produced by HBO but never aired. The repulsive hazing rituals seen in the film made all sorts of headlines and got some of the houses in hot water. It was later discovered that many of the scenes were, in fact, recreations, causing a great deal of ethical chest thumps in Phillips' direction. Today they could have marketed the movie as “found footage,” but back then blurring the verite lines this much left HBO with a lot of egg on their face. (Phillips and his co-director Andrew Gurland, with whom he founded the short-lived but influential New York Underground Film Festival, went through the pledge initiations themselves onscreen, so they can't be accused of being completely sadistic.)
As “Frat House” was being cut Phillips got the gig to shoot “Bittersweet Motel.” I heard tell that he beat out a number of known documentarians, including the revered Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, because he went into the meeting saying he'd never heard of Phish. (While he may not have been too familiar with the music, having “never heard of them” is practically an impossibility – he was in and around colleges in the 1990s.)
This irreverence for traditional documentary filmmaking threw obsessive Phish fans for a loop. There's a subset who really love to keep stats, like the ones who track how long the audience howls before guitarist Trey Anastasio plays “the note” during performances of fan-favorite “The Divided Sky,” to give just one example. So you can forgive them for not understanding why the movie tracked Phish through their December '97 shows, then summer '98 stint in Europe, then concluded with their summer '97 festival “The Great Went.” (Yes, cinephiles, that name is a “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” reference.)
Phillips' instincts were correct that a weekend in a tiny Maine town with 70,000 neo-hippies would make for a good climax to the film. Same deal with leading the band to a gun shop while in Spain. Some of the more hardcore peace-and-love types blanched at seeing Trey point a “Dirty Harry”-sized pistol and shout “Motherfucker!!” but it makes for a rather amusing scene. As for the fans themselves, most of the ones Phillips chose to film are exactly the type of people the “normal fans” are embarrassed by. Spaced-out stoners or gross frat boys. Yes, they exist and are an unmistakable part of the culture – but are they the only representatives of the fandom? No, I keep telling friends who can't fathom that I go to Phish shows. No, they are not.
So why on Earth would I, as a would-be Phish proselytizer, ever want you to see this movie? It's all about the music, man.
Not even Phillips' entertaining snark can take away from the main course: Phish's playing was absolutely untouched in '97-'98, and he doesn't shy away from going into the deep dark funk, the hardcore shredding or the spacey jams. If the stink of sweat, patchouli and kind bud has kept you at a remove from this band, but you are, indeed, enamored of highly skilled musicianship and jazzy improvisation, you won't be ten minutes into this movie before thinking “hey, I should really be paying attention to this stuff.”
Cinephiles will also get a kick out of one of the more fun tunes in Phish's repertoire, which makes an appearance here. Among the more “epic” things you may catch at a Phish show is a lengthy groove based on Brazilian jazz/funk composer Eumir Deodato's arrangement of the opening of Richard Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” The melody is best known in pop culture circles as the theme from Stanley Kubrick's “2001,” but we, of course, know that Deodato's version is, in fact, from Hal Ashby's “Being There.” (It has been played 194 times as of this writing, at 11.97% of their live shows – what did I tell you about Phish and stats?)
The band, led by guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio but very much a foursome including bassist/singer Mike Gordon, keyboardist-singer Page McConnell and drummer/singer/vaccum-cleaner-blower Jon Fishman (whose last name may or may not be responsible from the group's name) (and who also wears a dress), are very informed by movies and media. “The suburban white kid is part of American musical heritage, whether you like it or not,” Anastasio says in “Bittersweet Motel,” making no excuses for his world view.
The comment comes during one of a number of quite insightful interview segments in which Phillips confronts Anastasio with printed negative reviews. Many rock critics were quick to label Phish the heir apparent to the Grateful Dead. There are similarities – devoted followers, unpredictable set-lists, lots of stoned people in the audience – but Anastasio isn't having it. He agrees that Jerry Garcia and the Dead are influences, but no more than, say, Boston. “Those guys were listening to Del McCoury, I was going to the mall.”
The band can seem silly at times, but their strict regimen of practicing shows that the music, really, is the key. Anastasio paraphrases Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous line from “Pumping Iron” about “coming day and night” while pumping at the gym, and equates it to jamming. We see Anastasio after what he considers a lousy set at “The Great Went” (which, luckily, consisted of 8 sets) and then after a more successful one. Backstage he turns to Mike Gordon to pay a self-effacing compliment: “that was so funky it was almost as good as James Brown on his worst night.”
“Rock and roll, on a certain level, is a bunch of bullshit,” he says, “but music is not.” The “music is not” ethos is front-and-center during a rehearsal/writing session for the tune that eventually became “Birds of a Feather.” You watch them create the song on the spot, each member flinging suggestions at one another for the wildly uptempo tune. (At one point keyboardist Page McConnell slips in the theme from “Star Trek” as an improvisational phrase that, alas, was never kept as part of the tune.) You also see them backstage noodling on the Ween song “Roses Are Free,” and as they get to the bridge Anastasio simply says “let's make something up in that section.” Phillips then cuts to the band shredding “that section” in front of face-melted fans. The song has since become a recurring part of their repertoire.
Phillips doesn't just have a knack for capturing the right moment of the band backstage and on the road, he isn't afraid to push them a little bit. Turns out he only forced Anastasio to read bad reviews, not the other guys. He's got the camera rolling in a rehearsal studio's kitchen when Anastasio jokingly whines to his bandmates about this. To hear Anastasio retell what he just had to read is a very strange bit of voyeurism. It shows a team rallying together. No matter how much success you have, no one wants to hear that someone out there thinks they suck.
There's also some comedy, like Anastasio, clearly drunk, serenading McConnell and complimenting him on his new shirt. Those who like to lionize Phish were a little taken aback by some of his rock star antics caught during the European tour. He throws a beer can at one of the roadies (though with a smile) and delights in making sure the photos fans ask for come out with the heads cut off. “Hey, man, that's not so cool.” Well, like he said earlier, he never said he was Jerry Garcia.
“Bittersweet Motel” is a bit of a time capsule. Anastasio is defiantly sober now (no beer allowed backstage, no post-show parties – each member of the group jumps in their own bus the moment after the final bow.) Their playing has some minor differences, too - fewer digital delay loops, more weird bass pedal effects and the singing has gotten a little better. A little.
“Bittersweet Motel” (named for one of Phish's tunes) has basically been forgotten by anyone except hardcore Phish fans, even if they take some umbrage with it. Considering that Phish is not only still around, but doing new and exciting things, it can't hurt to keep an open mind and see if you want to “get on the train.” So let's close it out with “Tweezer” from 11/17/97. Yeah, the associated YouTube image is a fractal. Deal with it.