Music to Swim By
Rockumentaries tend to be nothing more than ego-serving projects made with the express purpose of ameliorating a band’s popularity or public image. Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same comes immediately to mind. However, there are those rare occurrences when a film casts fresh light on a musical phenomenon so unique that not making a movie about it would seem a gross and unjust oversight. Into this small latter category falls director-producer Todd Phillips’ Bittersweet Motel, which takes a mostly candid look at Phish and its immense following of devoted fans.
In 1993, while still a junior at NYU’s film school, Phillips made his first feature-length documentary, Hated, based on the controversial punk star G.G. Allin. He is also responsible for the never-aired HBO foray into collegiate life, Frat House, as well as this past summer’s hit film Road Trip. However, it was his first movie that attracted the attention of the four musicians from Burlington, Vermont, who have ridden a wave of popularity that so parallels the Grateful Dead’s that critics cannot help but draw continual (and sometimes annoying) comparisons.
So why did guitarist Trey Anastasio, pianist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman decide to make a movie about themselves, if not solely out of pretentiousness? The answer is never made clear in Bittersweet Motel, but the philosophy (if you can call it that) behind the Phish phenomenon is not founded on clear-cut explanations as to why or how things happen. Sometimes shit happens, and it might be a good idea to make a record of it so others might appreciate the experience. This thinking accords with the Phish’s musical performances, which are entirely improvised, unrehearsed, and unable to be duplicated. Each show is a unique event and thousands of people follow the band’s never-ending tour with the express purpose of experiencing something new. Still, the desire to remember and share these events has led to the band allowing a substantial tapers’ section at their concerts (almost unheard of in today’s copyright-oriented music industry), which in turn has generated a bootleg-trading market that would draw nervous sweat from the anti-Napster bands like Metallica.
Bittersweet Motel is conceived much like an invited taping, exploring Phish’s ideas and self-images by interspersing interviews with bandmembers and concert-goers with footage of their lives performances during the two-day Great Went in Limestone, Maine in August 1997, a Rochester, New York arena date that December, and their European tour during summer 1998. Originally, the documentary was only supposed to cover the action of the Great Went, but as Phillips realized the vast devotion the band attracts, as well as their innovative approach to music-making, he decided more extensive footage was required. The four men perform the typical behind-the-scenes rock band antics, revealing ordinariness and quick wit as they drink beer and fool around after shows, practice in the studio, and, at one point, haggle with a gun merchant in Spain (they, of course, are not interested in buying a gun Trey only wanted a whip… no explanation given). What about the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? Well, most of the first two are demonstrated more by the fans than by band-members, and as for rock ‘n’ roll, “It’s pretty much bullshit,” says Trey. He adds, “The music’s what’s real. To me, music’s the most real thing in the world.”
As with the concert performances, Trey glides his way into the movie’s center stage, for the simple reason that he’s the genius behind Phish. He writes most of the music, orchestrates most of the band’s studio and live jam sessions, and is first to admit when the band (and he) are not playing up to par. After their first set at the Great Went, Trey exclaims, “We had a bad set. That was our worst set in six months,” not as an admonishment to his bandmates, but as a simple admission of fact and demonstration of the standards they impose upon themselves (I attended the Great Went, and personally thought the first set was just fine). He also answers Phish’s critics, particularly an article appearing in Entertainment Weekly that points out how Phish doesn’t match up to the Grateful Dead and concludes that Phish could urinate in people’s ears and they’d pay for it. Before sarcastically comparing this image with the market dynamics of prostitution, Trey confesses that there is some truth to that, that sometimes they have a bad night and play (according to him) terribly, and that the Grateful Dead was a big influence in his music. “But there are also aspects of Boston I like,” he says, explaining that he was a white child growing up in the suburbs during the seventies, and everything from preteen mall music to bootleg Jimi Hendrix albums played a role in his artistic development. The suburban kid, he suggests, with myriad exposures to decades of rock music, “is a part of music history,” and that’s just the way it is.
And to anyone who has problem with that: “Tough shit, because here we come.” Phillips wasn’t a fan when first approached by Phish, who wanted an objective perspective for the film. He quickly became a fan, however, because their creativity is, he says, something everyone should appreciate, even if your tastes don’t tend towards guitar-driven improv rock. He was not hampered in any way by the band during the making of this movie, thus he can take slightly scathing looks at the some of the less desirable elements one finds in the Phish community, such as a group of young men at the Great Went festival who can think of nothing better to talk about than kind bud (high-grade marijuana) and their preference for the hippie chicks who shave their pits over those who don’t, or enthusiastic attendees obsessed with hopping on nitrous tanks or espousing quasi-metaphysical philosophies. When such interviews came on screen at the screening I attended, there were excessive groans of embarrassment and disagreement (and at least one boo) from fans in the theater. However, the film isn’t about the “Phish-heads,” but the four musicians who have somehow turned their love of music into a bona fide social marvel.
Bittersweet Motel doesn’t examine the band members’ private lives, but it does show their interactions with each other and with fans and their unconventional approach to creating music. If you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy seeing Phish behind the scenes, as regular Joes trying to make a living and have some fun; you’ll also witness some of the best Phish concert footage ever made. If you’re not a fan, the movie is a provocative look at what it takes to spawn one of the biggest subcultures in the U.S. today. And if you could care less about the entire phenomenon well, tough shit.