The announcement of Phish 3D was somewhat surprising to me, but somewhere in the middle of the April 20th preview screening, it dawned on me that I should have expected nothing less. After all, the band has been doing nothing but taking advantage of technology and innovation for over two decades of productivity. Why WOULDN’T Phish do a 3D movie, I eventually thought.
While my experience at Phish 3D lacked the vicarious energy that existed at live broadcasts like Coventry and Coney Island, it did feel huge by comparison. Phish 3D comes the closest of any visual Phish release yet to capturing the atmosphere of the band’s frequently breathtaking performances. Not the atmosphere of the event itself, mind you, but the psychological and musical aura that surrounds those four guys when they step on stage.
The movie does a wonderful job conveying the communication, closeness, and camaraderie of Phish, providing glimpses into the band’s onstage demeanor that even the most jaded fans will enjoy. Most importantly, the performances are excellent. Trey Anastasio displays off-the-charts delight throughout the film that reflects his playing, Mike Gordon’s intricate bass work shines, and viewers practically get to step right into Page McConnell’s keyboard nest and Jon Fishman’s drum setup to witness their individual prowess.
The idea of what a 3D movie is.. has changed with technology. Phish 3D isn’t about having the neck of Anastasio’s guitar jabbing into the air above your head, or creating a virtual glowstick war for viewers to look up to. Rather than leaping out of the screen, this 3D experience opens up the visual space behind the screen. The effect is subtle at times, and offers a change in the realm of depth perception as opposed to bringing the action out. It’s all about giving your brain that sense of place and distance. When the cameras pan around McConnell’s keyboards or capture the lighted trees behind the stage, the effect is astounding. When a crowd shot happens, the viewer feels as if they could step right into the spaces between people. When the band is bundled up at night or the sun is hammering down on the desert during the day, you can feel those sensations.
For me, the novelty of seeing the band in 3D wore off about halfway through the presentation. Watching the film never ceased to be enjoyable, but the initial "wow" factor doesn’t sustain itself. Thankfully, the song selection and presentation are good enough that the film would be enjoyable even without the 3D element. A collage of Phish originals filmed at night comprises the first part of the film, and there are some eye-popping moments featuring the colorful "burble" that floated above the crowd, the fire-spitting art installations, and Chris Kuroda’s ever-engaging light show. I won’t spoil the setlist too much during this report, but it’s easy on the ears, too, with some of the festivals best music featured – "Tweezer > Maze," "Mike’s Song," and "Undermind" were highlights.
I was happy that the film included plenty of footage from my personal favorite set that the band has performed since their return – the acoustic set during the day after the Halloween show. In 3D, the contrast of the acoustic set against the majority of Phish music is immeasurable. During "Wilson," which appeared to be somewhat impromptu, Anastasio joyfully wrestles with the normally sustain-filled guitar solo. This version of "The Curtain With" is already entrenched among the most memorable Phish moments ever, and it is appropriately exhilarating in 3D. Gordon particularly shines during the acoustic set, playing a hybrid acoustic/electric bass with a tone that perfectly matches his personality.
The climax of the film is built as much around the guest singers and horn players as it is around the band’s musical Halloween costume – The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Anyone familiar with singer Sharon Jones already knows that she can’t help but dominate a stage, and Phish is "Happy" to let her and the horns do plenty of heavy lifting. The Stones songs are full of delightful angles and shots of the guests perched above Phish, and one particular shot of Anastasio and the singers is the most lasting image I took away from the film. A glimpse of "Suzy Greenberg" being rehearsed yields a funny line from one of the film’s few non-music moments as Anastasio tells the backup singers that "Suzy Greenberg" is "about a girl." I laughed pretty hard when one of the singers replied, somewhat quizzically, "OK…"
As enjoyable and unique as the experience was, I did come away with a couple of gripes. First, the sound quality was well below what I expected, given the technology available for such things. I don’t know if this is an issue with the film or the slightly older theatre at which I saw the film, but the crowd noise between songs was nearly unbearable, there were times when the horns were inaudible, and Anastasio dominated the overall mix. Second, the editing and camerawork are horrid. I get the feeling that most Phish fans would rather see the band than a monitor or mic stand, but the cameramen constantly use such unremarkable objects to force the 3D hand, when a simple shot of a guitar or drumstick would be better. Cameramen and editors – I know the movie is in 3D – you don’t have to keep sweeping by Page’s equipment and hiding the band behind mic stands to get the point across. The most gorgeous shots, like the ones that highlighted the spacing and interaction of the band, made me feel the distance of the lighted trees behind the stage, or brought out Kuroda’s lights were few and short-lived.
On the whole, I was glad that the film featured 99% music, though some viewers complained about the lack of exploration of the festival grounds. If the film had been titled "Phish Festival 8 3D," I would have been disappointed with the meager rehearsal footage and otherwise unremarkable offstage moments as well. But for Phish 3D, the focus on the music worked. Short of sitting sidestage with the VIP’s or having amazing seats at a show, this film is the purest visual Phish experience in existence.