The jam band Phish decided to call it quits in 2004, which naturally elicited a mournful cry from the general direction of the hacky sack nation. Of course, the Vermont natives couldn't just hang up their guitars without throwing one of their trademark festivals - despite the bittersweet air it had prior to kickoff, the "It" festival, held over two days in August 2003, was one of the band's final hurrahs (their last concert was a two-night stand at the Coventry Festival the following August). "It" was captured for posterity and the resulting concert film/documentary Phish: It, was broadcast to bewildered nursing home residents everywhere on PBS late last year.
The film, directed and produced by Mary Wharton, charts the buildup to and chaos during the "It" festival; the fellas literally design a world which more herbally-minded Phish-heads probably see in their dreams every night. It's a fantastical, wondrous spread that doesn't quite seem real, but somehow is. Mixed in among the nervously edited concert footage are interviews with band members and their associates, all of whom reflect and wax nostalgic upon their time spent crisscrossing the globe with Phish.
Admittedly, Phish (and other bands of its ilk) are acquired tastes - however, fans of avant-garde jazz or other improvisational forms of music would probably dig on what these Vermonters throw out. Frontman Trey Anastasio is deeply rooted in the jazz aesthetic and much of Phish's music deals in tricky time signatures and rhythms that would cause Britney Spears to throw up her hands and head for Starbucks. Despite the oft-maligned jam band label, Phish is comprised of four extremely talented musicians who made intricate, eclectic music together for two decades. This look at their final hurrah is appropriately awed, but unafraid of cutting loose during the classic "You Enjoy Myself."
Perhaps the only quibble with Phish: It is that the concert footage is edited together in such a way as to induce vertigo; quick cuts, crazy angles and a generally restless camera occasionally detract from the experience of watching the film. While aurally things are rock solid, I feel as though the filmmakers could've adopted a more low-key approach to filming and editing the concert. The group's music isn't this spastic - why is the filmed representation?
Phish: It is offered here in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and for the most part, looks pretty good. It looks somewhat sharper and less murky than when it was broadcast on PBS, but there are still moments of grain and jagged edges (the interviews were filmed in front of a bluescreen, which could be the source of these problems). Overall, it doesn't look horrible, but it's nothing to write home about.
Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo are the options available; as befits a concert film, ambient crowd noise is kept mostly to the surrounds, while the music is front and center, spread across the front speakers. Fidelity is excellent - which is a good thing as Phish is prone to barely audible noodling. Every patchouli-scented note is clear and free of distortion. Overall, an excellent mix.
The first disc, which contains the 90-minute PBS special as broadcast, only has three bonus interviews ("Arriving At It," "Getting Started" and "Russ Bennett & Lars Fisk") which run for an aggregate of 17 minutes. The bulk of the bonus material is on the second disc, which houses a nine minute scored photo gallery as well as ten bonus songs ("Reba," "Limb by Limb," "Chalkdust Torture," "NICU," "Waves," "David Bowie," "Seven Below," "Pebbles and Marbles," "Julius" and "The Lizards") which run for a staggering combined time of two hours, 15 minutes. The gallery is fullscreen while the bonus songs are presented in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1.
Diehard Phish addicts have likely already worn out copies of this two-disc set (a bit steep at its suggested retail price; try and find it for around 20 bucks). For those unfamiliar with the band that spawned one of the tastiest Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors ever, perhaps Todd Phillips's 2000 documentary Bittersweet Motel would be a better starting place - that or one of the band's many studio albums.