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Image Entertainment presents
Phish: Bittersweet Motel (2000)

"People aren't there to see us get through all the sections perfectly. I thought people were rockin'. That's all I care about."
- Trey Anastasio

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: March 20, 2001

Stars: Trey Anastasio, John Fishman, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell
Director: Todd Phillips

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (contains nudity)
Run Time: 01h:24m:09s
Release Date: March 06, 2001
UPC: 014381978322
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BB-A- B+

DVD Review

August 1997. A crowd of over 70,000 people has arrived in the small community of Limestone, Maine for a giant concert event. They've come from all over the country to hear music that they live to hear and experience. Two young men road their bicycles for 1,400 miles over 25 days to get there. What amazing collection of bands has arrived to warrant these throngs of fans? Actually it's only one band - an astonishing musical sensation that has created ridiculously devout fans. This cultural phenomena is four guys - Trey Anastasio, Jonathan Fishman, Page McConnell, and Michael Gordon - also known as Phish.

For Bittersweet Motel, director Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Hated (The GG Allin Story)) took a small film crew and documented the music and ideas of this unbelievably popular band. Phish formed in late 1983 while attending the University of Vermont and began playing shows around the campus. In 1988, they released their first album - Junta - and they began touring outside of New England. But Phish's rise varies sharply from the usual studio and promotional-aided success stories. Instead, they've grown through word of mouth about their crazy live shows, which are improvised without the usual set list. Although they have a huge following, a cloud hangs over their music as critics lump them together with the Grateful Dead and other "jam bands." They're also often associated with excessive drug use at their shows. This documentary touches on those subjects, but focuses mostly on the music through plenty of live performance footage.

During this film, guitar/vocalist Trey Anastasio speaks often about the band, their music, and his thoughts about criticism. One silly article compares their music to "urinating in the ears of the audience", and it both irks and amuses him at the same time. Trey is a well-spoken individual who isn't afraid to speak his mind, and while he rejects critics, it's obvious that he does take them seriously. While he does come off a few times as a jerk, this is a commonplace part of documentaries. When a director is basically given all-access to individuals, they will have some unfortunate moments. Phish comes across as four friends who happen to play in a band. They all take the music seriously, but still enjoy playing around on guitars backstage and just hanging out with each other.

Personally, I wouldn't label myself a Phish fan, but I do admire their musicianship and willingness to stray from the expected in their live performances and overall career. Bittersweet Motel contains 14 songs and portions of numerous others during its fairly short running time. I enjoyed some of these tracks immensely, while others grew tedious with incessant jamming or dull melodies. The highlights were Brian & Robert, a mellow song with nice harmonies and keyboard rhythms; Waste, a cute little love ditty; Frankenstein, a big rocker with a cool guitar/keyboard mix; and Loving Cup, a catchy Rolling Stones cover. This film provides a good introduction to Phish's music, but is probably much more valuable to the knowledgeable, devout fan.

Bittersweet Motel follows Phish throughout a European club tour, a show in Rochester, New York, and the Great Went in Limestone, Maine. During all of these events, Phillips gives us interesting access to the band's preparations, silliness, and thoughts. In terms of concert documentaries, this is an impressive film that provides a nice look at one of the most prominent rock bands of the past decade.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: This 1.85:1 widescreen nonanormorphic transfer has a decent picture during most of its running time. Unfortunately, I noticed a surprisingly high level of grain on this print, especially during the darker concert footage. A few backstage moments also were very fuzzy and really hurt the overall visual presentation. Few specks or major defects exist here, but the poor quality in certain scenes lessens what could have been an impressive visual transfer for this concert film.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes
DTSEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Often the prime drawing point of a concert DVD is a powerful audio transfer, and Bittersweet Motel is no exception. The DTS track sounds excellent, with plenty of depth and clarity to the music. The excitement and cheers of the audience are heard clearly throughout the surround speakers, and this adds to the "you-are-there" feeling. The power in this transfer especially comes across during rockers like Wilson and Frankenstein.

This disc also contains a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer - a solid track with slightly less depth than the DTS one - and a 2.0-channel Dolby track, which suffers dramatically due to its limited capabilities.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
8 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Lengthy text interview with director Todd Phillips
Extras Review: Bittersweet Motel contains the added gem of eight additional scenes that total around 35 minutes. Several of them are brief, throwaway interviews, but they also include full-length versions of four more Phish songs. Punch You in the Eye has an extended jam session, Big Black Furry Creature from Mars is a silly, fast rock song, and Lawn Boy is a slow, goofy song with vocals from Page from his piano. The best of this bunch is Maze, which starts with a nice mix of slow and fast rhythms and ends up in a lengthy improvised jam. These scenes are a worthwhile addition and show even more musical sides to this talented band.

The other major extra feature is a lengthy text interview with director Todd Phillips. While a visual one might be more accessible, this conversation provides much more information than the usual promotional fodder. It's interesting that Phish had the idea for the film, but still gave Phillips total freedom to choose the songs that would go in the film. Also, he only utilized two cameras at The Great Went and a crew of four for the entire European tour. Considering the limited scope, their footage is incredible.

The final bonus is the original theatrical trailer, which comes in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. It is extremely brief, but captures the essence of Phish's live shows through only a few scenes.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

Phish falls into the category of bands who I don't care for musically, but I understand how people could become devout fans. Bittersweet Motel provides an interesting peek into their thoughts and music, and should be a welcome addition into the DVD collections of Phish lovers everywhere.

 


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