For Chris Pepino, a devotee of the band Phish, the announcement in 2004 that the group was going to stop touring and break up was too much to handle. So Pepino, a filmmaker based in Redlands, CA, decided to go out and make a film about his favorite band.
So many thousands of people descended on northern Vermont in August, 2004, to see Phish’s final shows that there were backups of nearly 100 miles on the interstate and local highways. As well, the area had received monsoon-like rains, which made the fields of northern Vermont very muddy. As a result, Phish fans waited in their cars for more than 50 hours, in some cases, just for a chance to be near the band and other fans during the concert. Pepino was one of those fans.
“I sat for 22 hours on back roads,” he says. “The cars never moved at all.” The morning of the final concert, the police and members of the band got on the radio and told the fans to turn around and head for home because the crowds and the extremely muddy conditions had made travel impossible, even dangerous.
“I stayed on the road and had all this camera equipment with me, and I couldn’t hike in with all the equipment I had,” Pepino sys. It took 10 hours for him to go the last four miles into the concert site. “It was definitely an ordeal for me.”
The film’s title, “We Enjoy Yourself,” is a play on “You Enjoy Myself,” the title of one of the band’s most ambitious and popular compositions.
“We Enjoy Yourself” chronicles the last few days of what was then thought of as being the last few concerts of the career of the multifaceted band. Pepino will appear at the screening of the film on Friday and Saturday, September 4 and 5, at the New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers. The festival runs through November 8.
Phish, says Pepino in a phone interview from California, is more than just a band. It is a cultural experience. “It’s really hard to answer that question — I try to a lot for people who have never heard the band,” he says. “I think a big part of it is that they are so spontaneous and creative as far as their concerts go. They can play 20 concerts in a row and not repeat a single song, because they have such a huge repertoire. And they really make an effort to make the concert interesting and different every night. I think the fans really appreciate that.
“Beyond that, I would say they are just amazing musicians who play all kinds of genres of music, and you never know what to expect going to see them, so it’s always fun.”
Pepino began watching Phish (Trey Anastasio, guitar; Mike Gordon, bass; Jon Fishman, drums; and Page McConnell, keyboards) in 1994, in upstate New York. “The way they compose music is so different from most of the bands you see today,” he says. “They have roots in classical music, in jazz, and it’s very interesting. Most of the crowd were musicians and music lovers, and they connected to the music on a much deeper level. It was a culture that I had never experienced before.”
He soon found out that Phish, like the Grateful Dead, inspired its fans to travel around the country, and the world, to see its shows. In 1997, Pepino got his formal, official initiation as a Phish Head, as he spent an entire summer going everywhere the band went on tour. “I went around the whole country with them. I had to have been a huge fan to take on an endeavor like that.”
By the time the last Phish tour had come up, Pepino had made several films under his True Form Pictures brand. He decided to make Phish the subject of his first documentary.
Although the soundtrack is full of Phish tunes, there is not a single minute of footage from any actual Phish concert. Pepino says he actually did have some conversations with the band about the possibility of using some live footage. “I thought about that — I did have some footage of them playing, but it wasn’t professional in the sense that there were multiple cameras covering the band. They had all that stuff in their archives because they had actually been filming their last concerts, especially the last one, which was actually simulcast to movie theaters all around the country.”
The band had 40 cameras on that last Vermont show, Pepino says. “My general feeling was that in the end, if I wanted to incorporate concert footage into the movie, that it would be better to use the footage that Phish had. And their position on it has been that they are considering releasing a movie at some point, possibly in tandem with some concert footage from that whole weekend.”
He decided, ultimately, just to make the film more about the experiences of the people who went to see the last concerts.
“At first, I just went up there with all my equipment, not knowing what to expect, and I ended up interviewing all these people primarily in the beginning about how they were connected to Phish, how they felt about the band breaking up, how it changed their life, all those things,” says Pepino.
And then he hit the traffic. “The story changed when I realized what we were up against in trying to get to the concert. Then it became a story about what people were willing to go through, how far they were willing to go to see the band play.”
The most interesting vignettes in the film are those taken during the days of the tour, and those filmed during the aftermath of the last show, as concertgoers struggled to extract their cars from the muddy fields. Pepino, and another man who served as cinematographer, interviewed many people who spoke with a transfixed awe about the friendship, and the kinship, they felt with the band, as well as that which they felt with other Phish fans.
There are also a few voiceovers from the band members, especially Anastasio and Gordon, as well as an actual appearance from Gordon, riding a cart through the mass of fans in Camden and talking with them.
Pepino, 31, grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. His father, Larry, who now lives on Long Island, was a mechanic, and his mother, Jean Hazard, who still lives in Norwalk, was a secretary. His younger brother, Ron, is working on a doctorate in atomic physics at the University of Boulder in Colorado. His uncle, Richard Winter, is a composer who won a scholarship award in 1997 from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
“My mom had a piano in the house, and it was something I was not excited about, but once I got excited about it, everything changed for me,” he says. Pepino continued to play music throughout his high school years, where he listened to lots of Beatles music, which his parents loved, and in the early 1990s he moved to Redlands, CA, where he attended the University of Redlands. He graduated from the school in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in music, film, and creative writing, and he still lives in Redlands.
He just finished a comedy screenplay, and he wants to continue to make movies. But for the near future Pepino plans to devote more time to playing and composing music. “I try not to put any restrictions on myself,” he says. “I enjoy playing music, and I am sure I will keep playing it for the rest of my life.”
Long Live Rock, New Jersey Film Festival, Scott Hall 123, College Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday and Saturday, September 4 and 5, 7 p.m. “Little Criminals,” 2009; “The Last Bastions of Rock,” 2009; and “We Enjoy Yourself,” 2009. Appearances by directors Fritch Clark and Chris Pepino. $10. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.