"Bittersweet Motel" is a documentary about the cult jam-band Phish, which has grown into one of the most popular touring acts in the country thanks to a grass-roots following that started when they were still in college.
Where they went to college is never revealed in Todd Phillips' scant film, although we know it was somewhere in Vermont. Similarly, the lives and personalities of the individuals in the four-member band are never revealed; "Bittersweet Motel" turns out to be mostly about the group's front-man, Trey Anastasio, and his philosophy of music, art and virtuosity. Put simply, he doesn't believe the third item has anything to do with the first two.
The degree to which you can tolerate that theory will determine your patience with "Bittersweet Motel," which is little more than an electronic press kit for the band, produced for the benefit of its fans. The film follows Phish as it tours Europe, then returns for a triumphant, weekend-long concert in Limestone, Maine, where 70,000 "Phish-heads" show up for what turns out to be three days of, well, peace, love and music.
It's all quite sweet and harmless, at least until Phish actually starts to play: They've been compared to the Grateful Dead for obvious reasons but display nothing of the musicianship of their predecessors. (The musical high point of the film is when they gather for an old-fashioned barbershop quartet version of "Hello, My Baby" before a show.)
The most interesting moment of the uber-jam comes when mass-nude-photographer Spencer Tunick stages a collective photographic nude portrait of the concert-goers, the meaning of which is almost completely obliterated by Phillips' own T-and-A treatment of a blonde Phish fan a few scenes later. The group's funk-based jams aren't given much play here - instead we see lots of Anastasio diddling on his guitar - until they cover Eumir Deodato's arrangement for the theme song from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
After that set, Anastasio laughingly says they were so good that they sounded like James Brown on his worst night. Um, Trey, like, no offense man, but in your dreams.
Starring: Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Jon Fishman and Mike Gordon as themselves
Directed by Todd Phillips
Released by Little Villa Films
Running time 82 minutes
Sun Score: *1/2