review for Phish: Bittersweet Motel on AllMovie

Phish: Bittersweet Motel (2000)
by Derek Armstrong review

In the rockumentary Phish: Bittersweet Motel, Todd Phillips astutely avoids the usual traps an image-conscious band might lay for a documentarist, such as tricking or guilting him into a whitewash job. Because rabid fans hold them as exalted gods who are flawless in spirit, Phish actually has something to lose if seen as petty and bullying, which is how lead singer Trey Anastasio comes across on several occasions. The fact that Phillips got the scenes of Anastasio crapping on underlings and carrying out insensitive jokes feels like a real coup, itself reflecting well on the band's reluctance to meddle with the director's distillation of truth. However, Phillips' movie still often feels false, due to some curious choices of whom to interview and where to edit that footage. Especially puzzling is his lingering interview with a duo of beer-drinking frat types, with whom he spends inordinate time at the Great Went festival. That these are the fans on whom he focuses reflects either his fundamental misunderstanding of the group's core fan base, or his harsh skepticism toward the Phish phenomenon in general, the latter of which is more uncharitable than necessary for a project of his own choosing. These faults aside, Phillips does coax a surprisingly frank and open film out of a band that has steadfastly rejected the spotlight, preferring underground channels of exposure to radio airplay. Any serious fan will want to see Bittersweet Motel if only to recognize that the hipster cool essayed by these gifted musicians from Vermont is not quite as effortless as it seems, and they can be as human as the next. Oh, and they'll probably dig the music, too.