Friday September 29, 2000

     "I figure if you're going to be a dork, be a dork. The world would be better if there were more dorks."
     That comment by a fan of the rock band Phish seen in "Bittersweet Motel," a documentary of the group's 1997 concert tour, inadvertently provides the more or less linking aesthetic between this film and "Barenaked in America," a documentary of a 1998 tour by the band Barenaked Ladies.
     The members of the two bands are, well, dorks. Really nice dorks. Even talented dorks. But dorks. And the music each makes is dork-rock.
     At least that's the impression likely to be taken away from each film by viewers who aren't already rabid fans themselves. It's a common problem with rockumentaries made by True Believers, which seem to be more about trying to show the world what's so special about their fave raves than really digging deep inside a group's dynamic or surrounding pop culture phenomenon.
     "Bittersweet Motel" director Todd Phillips ("Road Trip") was not a fan when recruited by Phish, a band that came out of Vermont in the early '90s to build a loyal, neo-hippie following akin to that associated with the Grateful Dead. But he became one, and it seems that he wants nothing more for this film than to show the world the joy of following Phish and to share the wisdom and insights of its members--charming, thoughtful guys who really care about what they do and never take their fans for granted.
     Phillips follows the band from rehearsals in snowy Vermont to a series of U.S. dates and then to Europe for club shows (the fan base there isn't as big) and then back to the U.S. for the Big Went, an annual festival in which the band plays five or six sets over the course of two long days. It makes for some interesting bits, but nothing we haven't seen in countless rock films or MTV shows. Singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio comes off as unaffected and down-to-earth, but Phillips spends so much time with him addressing the band's critics that he ultimately comes across as whiny.
     The director-fan for Barenaked Ladies is none other than former "Beverly Hills, 90210" actor Jason Priestley, who seems on a double mission here. One goal is to show what makes the band special to him and other followers. The other is to promote a Canadian mind-set, something he shares with the Toronto-based group.
     What it all seems to come down to is incessantly jokey, if clever repartee, which is also the essence of the Ladies' songs. As the lyrics to one tune put it, "Our life is just one big pun." This is the kind of band you'd expect to have formed from a friendship of two camp counselors, which is exactly the case with frontmen Ed Robertson and Steven Page. There's cleverness in their sing-along songs, but not a lot of depth. (Unfortunately, Priestley felt it necessary to get into the joke-slinging himself in one sequence of banter, which though distracting, proves that he too is a dork.)
     One element isn't so pun-able: Shortly before the tour started, keyboardist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia. But Priestley fails to give that side story much weight--it would have been fascinating to intertwine the sunny tales of the band, on the road in the U.S. as it rises from cult status to having a No. 1 hit with the pun-filled "One Week," with the dark shadow of Hearn having to stay behind, his future uncertain. It's addressed here and there, but not in a way that adds up to much.
     Just as Priestley doesn't exploit the dramatic devices that fell into his lap, Phillips fails to find anything surrounding Phish to give his film dramatic momentum, even though the raw material is staring him in the face. While the time he spent with Phish didn't feature anything as strong as a rise to No. 1 on the charts or a serious illness--it was just one of the band's many tours--there were two things that could have provided that focus. The European trip, with the band playing small clubs rather than the large venues it fills in North America, offered possibilities for an interesting study, rather than just a segment.
     More meaty fodder, though, would have been the Great Went, the '97 edition of the band's own annual Woodstock with 70,000 fans camping out. A film devoted entirely to this endeavor, from planning sessions through the end, would probably have been much more involving. Instead, we have a film without a framework, without a skeleton--a Phish philet, if you will.
     You have to wonder if these directors have even seen the truly great rockumentaries: "Woodstock," the terrifying "Gimme Shelter" account of Altamont, "The Last Waltz" in which Martin Scorsese chronicles the Band and its final concert event, not to mention the archetypal tour film, "This Is Spinal Tap." Drawing on those models could have made these films better services for all dorkdom.
     'Bittersweet Motel'


Stranger Than Fiction Films presents a Todd Phillips movie. Director, 2000. Unrated. and producer Todd Phillips. Executive producer Joshua Plank. Editor Alan Oxman. Director of photography Elia Lyssy. Running time: 90 minutes.