Trey Anastasio, the shaggy-bowl-cut-haired, bespectacled lead singer of Phish, never stops grinning. He looks like a gawky version of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, and he has the personality of a genially hipper-than-thou sophomore wiseacre prowling a Midwestern college dorm in 1978. He may be the single dorkiest human being ever to be described by the term rock star. He’s also weirdly winning in his unaffected uncoolness, and it’s his granola-sincere vibe of musical joy that gives Bittersweet Motel its lift.
Directed by Todd Phillips, who made Road Trip (but who launched his career with the amazing documentary Hated, about the ultimate punk demon GG Allin), Bittersweet Motel is at once gentle and spontaneous — an unassuming rock-band-on-tour chronicle in which the subjects noodle over song licks and memories without a glimmer of attitude. Phish, a grass-roots cult band that never lusted after arena success but found it anyway, have generally been pegged as youthful heirs to the Grateful Dead, and though the similarities are obvious (devoted, nomadic neo-hippie fans; bearded frontman who radiates happiness without a trace of irony; epic concerts that find their spirit and shape in the flow of the moment), the band’s blues-folk-rock amalgam is at once tougher and hookier than the Dead’s. Their sound may be unabashedly white, but, in its straining-for-the-high-notes urgency, it’s got a soul that sneaks up on you.
The four members of Phish have no pretenses about their anti-sexy, out-of-style looks, and, in a strange way, that’s the key to their paradoxical appeal. They’re a modern rock band purged of rage, hype, and narcissism. At the end, the movie, having followed their 1998 European tour, shows us a two-day concert in the Limestone, Maine, countryside before 70,000 fans, a healthy handful of whom gleefully strip naked for a group photograph. It’s like Woodstock without the mud, and it leaves you feeling clean. B+