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'Bittersweet Motel'

'Bittersweet Motel' catches up with rock's most jamming band

Friday, October 06, 2000

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

The release of "Almost Famous" has prompted a new round of critical lists of the best rock movies and rockumentaries.

'Bittersweet Motel'

RATING: R for nudity and drug use.


DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


While "Bittersweet Motel," opening at the Harris, isn't destined to be one of them, it does a fine job of hooking us up with Phish. Directed by Todd Phillips ("Road Trip"), it bounces around with the loose improvisational style of one of the band's sets.

"Bittersweet Motel" doesn't have the high drama of a "Gimme Shelter" or "Last Waltz," nor the brilliant candor of Dylan's "Don't Look Back." But it is an interesting enough glimpse into the world that is Phish, a Vermont band that, using the Grateful Dead method, has quietly become one of rock's biggest touring phenomenons.

In the lead role we have Shaggy from the "Scooby Doo" cartoon, played by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Whether he's performing, hanging backstage or encountering the phans, Anastasio is all goofy smiles and positive vibes. Musically, he's that rare character who can create a hailstorm of guitar notes (bassist Mike Gordon will actually tell him at one point "too many notes") or simply get to the meaning of a song beautifully and honestly.

Those familiar with Phish probably don't need to know they got into it for the music, but "Bittersweet Motel," following them around in 1997 and 1998, is eager to make that point. The band recalls its early years humorously (a college party where they played "Proud Mary" -- twice -- before being pulled for a Michael Jackson record), and talks about current days somewhat defensively.

Anastasio, reading a review that compares them unfavorably to the Dead, insists he never wanted to be Jerry Garcia. "There's aspects of the Grateful Dead I love," he declares, then adds. "There's aspects of Boston I love." He goes on to say that people just have to accept that he got his musical education at the mall, and that "the suburban white kid is part of music history, like it or not."

Phillips takes a no-frills approach to capturing some great concert footage and funny candid moments: Anastasio, between sets, telling a potential groupie that he wants to go solo on his golf cart; Anastasio backstage making up a song about keyboardist Page McConnell's spiffy new shirt; a Beatlesque beach scene in Europe; and the band coming off stage at the Great Went Festival in Maine realizing they'd blown the first set -- in front of 70,000 fans.

In the end, it's the fans who supply the biggest kick. Unlike the recent Barenaked Ladies rockumentary, this one actually delivers ... barenaked ladies. And gentlemen. At the Maine festival, hundreds of fans, some of whom were hitting the nitrous, release their clothes and inhibitions and run wild for a photo op that makes Woodstock look positively buttoned-down.

It's the most memorable moment in a film that's as low-key and likable as the band. And it's a definite eye-opener on the big screen.

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