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Stage Sight: Director Todd Phillips filmed DIY band Phish on stage and off for the documentary 'Bittersweet Motel.'

A Close-Up Angle

Todd Phillips finds some passion behind Phish's mellow music in his documentary, 'Bittersweet Motel'

By Jim Aquino

LET'S GET THIS OFF MY CHEST FIRST: I'm not a fan of America's most popular cult rockers, the Burlington, Vermont jam band Phish. I'm the ultimate anti-hippie, mainly because of my preference for hip-hop, so I was prepared to dismiss Road Trip director and documentary filmmaker Todd Phillips' Bittersweet Motel, a rockumentary that follows the neohippie favorite both on and off stage, on its 1997 and 1998 tours through Maine, New York and Europe. But much to my surprise, it's not as atrocious as I expected.

Like the band's rather bland, Bread-like lyrics, Bittersweet Motel isn't very deep--it's often about as deep as the celebrity profiles on E! and MTV. But it's a decent and likable rock film, with some funny interviews of spacey, incoherent flower-child fans, known as Phish-heads. Bittersweet Motel may not convert you to the scruffy, genre-bending neohippie rock of Phish, but it will make you appreciate singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio's love of his craft, his enthusiasm for performing and his refusal to play the same songs every night. As with Ed Wood in Tim Burton's biopic about the continuity-challenged B-movie auteur, Phish's dedication to their art is more impressive and admirable than what they've created. (Also admirable is how Phish acquired a huge following mainly through word-of-mouth on the Internet and without any MTV or radio airplay--a small victory for those bands that weren't concocted by Swedish teen-pop Svengalis and aren't concerned with being telegenic or catering to demographics.)

The self-deprecating Anastasio and his bandmates don't take themselves too seriously--they open one concert with a barbershop a cappella of "Hello My Baby," and most of the non-concert footage consists of them goofing off backstage, at the beach and in the unlikeliest of hippie hangouts, a gun store. But they care about the music they play, and that's becoming increasingly rare in the prefab, image-focused age of Britney and Backstreet.

Too many showbiz-news and talk-show interviews with entertainers these days focus on their personal lives, leading to banal responses from the subjects, and don't ask enough about their craft (an exception is the Bravo series Inside the Actors Studio). That's why the film's best moments are ones in which Phillips rises above celebrity-profile fluffiness and interviews Anastasio about making music and dealing with negative responses from rock critics.

At one point, he has Anastasio read a clipping of a scathing review from a critic who thinks Phish "urinates in fans' ears and sells it as music." Anastasio laughs off the comment with his fellow bandmates, but later, the camera follows him alone to his car, and we see he's clearly hurt by such reviews when he opens up about his frustrations with critics. "If they don't like [the music,]" he says, "tough shit."

Whether or not you agree that Phish's music sounds like piss (as for me, I still don't think I'll be buying a Phish CD any time soon), you come away from Bittersweet Motel with a better understanding of the struggles of musicians who don't want to sound like other fish in the sea.


Bittersweet Motel (Unrated; 80 min.) a documentary by Todd Phillips, opens Friday in San Jose at the Towne Theatre.

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From the August 24-30. 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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