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Movie Review: Phish 3D

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For all the hype and excitement leading up to Phish 3D, the truth is, it was a mixed bag of pleasure and disappointment. Part of me loved it and part of me walked out of the theater wanting more from the band's 2009 Festival 8 performance and the overall 3D experience.

The pre-show atmosphere inside the sold out theater in Chicago was undeniably palpable. While we waited for the movie to start, I gauged the buzz and asked a Phish fan sitting next to me what he felt about seeing Phish 3D. He told me that he had been to over 50 Phish concerts and was excited to experience the band in a new way. But like most Phish fans he wasn't quite sure what to expect during Phish 3D.

Then just as he finished, the intro credits flashed on the screen and a roar of cheers rippled through the theater. Instantly, the communal vibe of Phish 3D was stronger than what I felt during Larger Than Life, AEG Live's first 3D concert movie that was released back in December and featured Dave Matthews, Ben Harper and Gogol Bordello at Austin City Limit Festival.

During the two hour and twenty minute Phish 3D all types of live concert elements from the three-day festival popped from the screen. Beach balls bounced and plumes of stage smoke floated in front of us making me want to reach out and grab the beach balls and brush away the smoke as if I really could.

Through a series of spliced edits, the first set of songs included the extended funky and soulful jam-outs "AC/DC Bag" and "Tweezer." Then during the peaking chorus of "Mike's Song" real glow sticks were hurled from the back of the theater and rained down over the crowd. It was a clever twist to the same unexpected tricks used during old-school 3D movies where water or other things were flung into the crowd to make the 3D effects seem more real. I wasn't able to confirm if the glowstick trick was the decision of a few crafty Phish fans sitting in the back row, or if it was the official plan of AEG Live and Phish themselves. Either way, the glow stick wars that broke out in the theater added an excellent sense of excitement and beautifully merged our theater crowd with Festival 8's flock of 40,000 fans.

On the downside, most of Phish's performances didn't have a consistent flow of energy and the sets lagged at times. Only during the full-length daytime acoustic set and the Rolling Stones covers in the second set did Phish truly find their groove.

From a production standpoint the sound was subpar and the picture quality was surprisingly inconsistent. Sometimes the HD shots were crystal clear and other times they were blurry and out of focus making it almost irritating and jarringly unpleasant to watch. Maybe it was a local theater issue because there weren't problems like this during Larger Than Life, which had excellent sound and dynamic HD visuals from beginning to end. I do hope it was a local theater issue that can be fixed before the nationwide release on April 30th because these changes need to be made if Phish 3D is going to be worth fan's time and money.

When the visuals worked correctly experiencing Phish in 3D was really something special. The multiple vantage points provided a rare perspective of the band in full throttle. From various points of view you could see every inch of emotional expression on their faces including the tiny nuances of each band member's sacred playing space and instrument. And when front man Trey Anastasio and keyboard sage Page McConnell flashed smiles and closed their eyes and drifted deep into their musical happy place, it gave the songs a depth you wouldn't feel by just seeing them live in concert. Some fans took to the aisles and started dancing and twirling, too. And during the customary call-and-response mythological storytelling song "Wilson," even fans in the theater shouted back "Wiiiilllsson.." as if they were really in the Festival 8 crowd.

Other than a brief intermission trip through the festival grounds, a quick fan montage and a short peek into a practice session, there wasn't any revealing storyline or backstage band interactions mixed in to make Phish 3D unique. And sadly, you didn't get to see anything that fans at the Festival 8 didn't already see.

As 2010 rolls on AEG Live will release more 3D concert movies from other artists. And after seeing two 3D concert movies this year my optimism is starting to erode. More and more I'm realizing that the real purpose of making these 3D concert movies isn't to push boundaries or make concert movies the way D.A. Pennebaker did with Monterey Pop Festival or Don't Look Back. Nonetheless I'm an eternal optimist, and I'll give AEG Live and company the benefit of the doubt and continue to hope that they will refine their craft of making 3D concert movies. I hope they do find some way to use 3D technology to tell concert stories that truly inspire, challenge, and redefine the concert experience.

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About Chris Catania

  • mfan2

    I didn’t know they allowed Phish fans indoors :) How was the 3D with the hallucinogens? AEG Live should secretly hire Disney, or at least Kenny Ortega, because they/he knows what they’re/he’s doing, especially with the production values. But it might have to be kept on the DL because of prejudice.