Phish On Film
It’s no wonder Todd Phillips was impressed with Phish. Having barely heard of Vermont’s most famous musical progeny, the New York filmmaker was flown out to the Midwest to see them at a show three years ago. “Who the fuck are these guys?” he was thinking. “How do they have enough money to make a movie and fly me to Chicago?” The idea was to see if Phillips would like to document their upcoming festival, called the Great Went. It didn’t take him long to decide the answer was yes. “I saw how many fans there were, and I watched the show and was just blown away,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how big it was.”
As it turned out, the Chicago crowd was thoroughly eclipsed by the one that gathered in Limestone, Maine, that summer in 1997: Nearly 70,000 fans traveled hundreds — or even thousands — of miles to a remote spot in the northeastern corner of the United States. Once there, they formed what you might call a city of happy campers — cheerful, well behaved and in love with the music.
Phillips filmed the two-day extravaganza, but it didn’t stop there. The band and their manager John Paluska were so pleased with the footage from Maine that they decided to add some arena shots in Rochester, N.Y. Then Phillips thought they should show the guys rehearsing back in Vermont. Then it was a few European club dates and a 1998 New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. “We just got so excited about it, we said, ‘Let’s make a real movie,’” Phillips recalls.
“He felt it needed to be about the four people” in the band, adds Paluska — “not just an event. He said, ‘I don’t have any doubt I can do a really good movie.’ What impressed me was how confident he was. He was cocky in a good way.”
In the end, Phillips shot a total of 45 days over the next year and a half. The finished product, an 84-minute cinema vérité documentary that flows back and forth in time, is called Bittersweet Motel. It will premiere in Burlington this weekend, simultaneous with major metropolitan areas around the country.
Between shooting and releasing the Phish movie, Phillips’ own fame blossomed considerably — his film Road Trip, starring MTV’s obnoxious jester Tom Green and produced by mainstream maestro Ivan Reitman, just recently left local theaters. A kind of junior-Farrelly-brothers teen comedy, Road Trip was Philip’s first narrative feature film, and one of only four on his resume so far — the NYU film-school grad is just 28. He’s now at work on another screenplay for DreamWorks.
But of course it was their own roadtrip that concerned Phish, and it was Hated, Phillips’ 1993 documentary about the infamous — and outrageous — Detroit punk-rocker GG Allin that brought the filmmaker to the band’s attention. Made when Phillips was still a student, Hated became something of an instant cult classic. His other project was Frat House, also a documentary, and a dark look at collegiate life. Shot for HBO, this film too was an underground hit, and took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
When Phillips was hired to shoot the Phish film, it was both because the band admired his instincts as a documentary maker and because he wasn’t a starry-eyed fan. The cofounder of the New York Underground Film Festival, Phillips and his previous film subjects were a long way from Phish territory.
Though the band covered the costs — reportedly just over half a million dollars — Phillips was given complete creative control. Even Dionysian Productions, Phish’s protective management company, stayed out of the way. “They never did any influencing, not even in the editing,” he marvels. “If it was awful they could have buried it, I guess.” (Phish did, in fact, reject the work of an earlier filmmaker who had shot some footage at the Clifford Ball, a 1996 festival in Plattsburgh.) “But they were kind of like, ‘We got this guy, let’s let him do what he wants.’ They really respect other artists.” Besides, Phillips points out, this isn’t an exposé.
Bittersweet Motel isn’t a total puff piece, either — there are plenty of casual f-words, for example, and some of the fans are clearly blissed out on illegal substances. There’s even en masse nudity when New York photographer Spencer Tunick poses a few hundred recumbent fans in their birthday suits for a pic at the Great Went. These elements have earned Bittersweet an R rating, but even so it is in many ways the most wholesome rock flick since A Hard Day’s Night.
The deep, dark secret of Phish is that guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman are unabashedly normal. Well, aside from that polka-dot dress Fishman wears on stage, anyway. One of the merits of Bittersweet Motel is that Phillips grants these qualities the same cinematic stature as he did GG Allin’s sensationally outré behaviors. His is a somewhat anthropological view, but in the end the film reveals a sort of elemental clarity about, and patina of affection for, the subjects. “To be a storyteller,” Phillips says, “that’s the ultimate goal.”
Bittersweet Motel, named after the final song in the film, tells a story that is both uniquely American and anomalous in the annals of music-business-as-usual in America. The camera following the members of Phish parallels, in a way, the legions of devoted fans that have tracked the band since their genesis in Burlington some 15 years ago. Benefiting from the same type of peripatetic audience that first took shape around The Grateful Dead, Phish has achieved fame and fortune outside the usual parameters — and without the usual trappings — of star-making machinery: radio hits and videos on MTV. Other bands can certainly sell out arena shows, but it’s usually on the basis of top-selling records.
Phish has made it thanks to the sheer volume of fans who come to see them, buy their merchandise and share bootleg tapes with all their friends. Theirs are not antisocial fans who brood in their bedrooms alone under the headphones; they are fans for whom the Phish experience is one that must be shared, compared — and proselytized. Their devotion puts a sheen on the word “loyalty,” and it provides the kind of publicity that money simply can’t buy.
Though he’d heard of this subculture, Phillips was astonished to witness it for himself. In the same way, Vermonters who at this point may be understandably blasé about the Phish phenomenon, but have never followed the group nor seen one of their big shows, may find in Bittersweet Motel the measure of their own astonishment.
Lacking a linear structure and typical documentary “talking heads” that explain the subject — “I’m not Ken Burns,” Phillips quips — Bittersweet Motel comes across as somewhat “insider.” As such it fits the lineage of music movies like Don’t Look Back, which followed a young Bob Dylan to London in 1965. Still, Bittersweet manages to convey key impressions of the members of Phish and leak out, bit by bit, some of their remarkable history.
In an interview with a Spanish disc jockey in Barcelona, Gordon patiently and modestly reiterates how the band got its start, condensing to bare bones the tale he’s surely told a thousand times: meeting in college playing in local clubs, traveling around, playing in bigger clubs.
Recalling for another interviewer the band’s first gig, a ROTC parry at the University of Vermont, Fishman chuckles his way through the story, and entertains the rest of the band, too. They’re still tickled at how much they sucked, how much the audience hated them, how their mikes were taped to hockey sticks. They ran out of songs they knew in an hour and played the same ones for the second set, Fishman says. Someone put on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and cranked it louder than the band.
McConnell is the quietest one in Bittersweet Motel, but one of his moments in the spotlight is oddly touching. Alone on the stage at the Great Went, his back to the sea of faces just beyond he plays a pretty, delicate tune on the piano as if no one else were listening. The camera lingers on him for several minutes. When he’s finished, McConnell gets up, nods imperceptibly to the crowd and says simply into the mic: “Stick around” — as if anyone would do otherwise — before walking off stage for a break.
The camera seems positively glued to Anastasio throughout the film. Aside from the fact that he’s the lead singer and front man for the band, he comes across also as the lead personality. Phillips puts it this way: “When you’re doing a documentary you’re searching for the most real moments. Five days into it you realize where the real moments are ... and most of them came from Trey. It’s not that anyone else wasn’t talking, Trey was just the most unguarded. He made a conscious decision to just trust this process.”
So it’s Anastasio who is a conduit of “real” moments that express what this band is about — or isn’t.
Anastasio reading, and analyzing, a bad review of Phish in a magazine. Anastasio basically suggesting that suburban white kids need their music, too, and “tough shit if you don’t like it.” Anastasio defending longtime Phish lyricist Tom Marshall’s “totally original” songs. Anastasio noting that when Rolling Stone prints its “who’s on tour” list, they’re not on it (though RS has dubbed Phish “the most important band of the 90s”).
Though they readily acknowledge, and even make fun of, their lack of mainstream acceptance, the band wastes no energy on either resentment or smugness. At least in Bittersweet Motel, they seem sublimely content with who, what and where they are. “As long as your intention is pure and you know what you’re in it for,” says Anastasio at one point, “you’re all right.”
These kids are more than all right — but what about the fans? Phillips captures their real moments. too: the girl in Rochester who declares Phish music is “just full of freedom, full of happiness, and that’s what I’m looking for.” The spiritual fellow in ratty blond dreads who swears you don’t need drugs to listen to Phish music because it “takes you to a new level of music appreciation” and enters your soul.
A brief segment that speaks volumes about the notorious obedience of Phish fans occurs at the very beginning of the Great Went: A throng of people seems held in check by an invisible force field. Some of them mug good-naturedly for the panning camera. Then, as if the force were suddenly lifted, they begin to run — toward the stage. What was holding them back? “Nothing,” marvels Phillips, “except a few policemen on horses.” They were simply waiting for permission to enter.
One of the film’s funniest moments is provided by a couple of stoner fans at Went who were articulating seriously, but with some difficulty, the merits of the chicks who roll up in their Cherokees versus the chicks who roll up in their “Dubs.” It’s a moment worthy of, well, Road Trip.
Phish themselves provide some laughs, too — checking out the merch in a Barcelona gun shop; when Anastasio pretends to give Fishman a blow job (don’t worry, moms and dads, no body parts are revealed); when Anastasio, backstage, makes up a song about the chicks in the front row, then about McConnell’s new shirt and, finally, the cameramen: “Well, film crew came to see us and they thought they would get laid/They were wrong, so wrong, and that’s why we wrote this song.”
In fact, a sort of effervescence is all over Bittersweet Motel, perhaps best expressed by Anastasio: “Rock and roll on a certain level is a bunch of bullshit, but music is not. The joy of it all just came back to us on this tour.”
And after a particularly hot set: “That was some good playing, man, that was some sick shit. That was as good as James Brown on a really bad night.”
It’s “moments” like these that Phillips latched onto and reflected, prism-like, as quintessentially Phish. “Todd had a very strong vision for this straight out of the gate,” attests Paluska. “He definitely had a sense of humor and was always looking for humor, but he didn’t manufacture moments. He’s a very honest filmmaker.”
Phillips says he accepted the job of shooting Bittersweet Motel because “It was a challenge to do a project on something I initially had no interest in; I stumbled across it rather than being a part of it.” In the process, he became a fan himself, seduced, perhaps, by the grand, sweeping scope of the Phish phenomenon and its total absence of cynicism.
“I realized they were worthy of this treatment,” Phillips says, referring to the full-length feature film. It’s significantly different, he notes, from the one-hour-special approach of MTV or VH1. “Not every band deserves a documentary, but Phish is one of the greats,” he adds.
Phillips acknowledges his shooting style was influenced by his favorite cinema verité music film — Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones’ ill-fated Altamont concert near San Francisco in 1969 (“chaperoned” by the Hell’s Angels and marred by violence, one man was killed at the show). “In the same way that Gimme Shelter marked the end of the ’60s,” says Phillips, “Bittersweet Motel represents the ’90s — Phish had such a run ... To consistently be at the top of your game for 10 to 15 years — they’re that important to music.”
In the film, Trey Anastasio attributes the band’s longevity to something more basic: “Maybe what sets us apart is that we’re still all friends.” He was referring to his bandmates, but he might as well have been including the fans. Corny as it sounds, Bittersweet Motel is set apart from most other rockumentaries by what John Lennon once said is all you need: love.