June 14th, 2010
Directors Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen should be proud that a non-Rush fan, my girlfriend, saw their latest documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and cannot stop thinking about it here several days later. This Rush fan thought it was great and that it is one of the best docs about a rock band he’s ever seen.
It begins with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson meeting one another as kids in Willowdale, Toronto and persuing their love of music by taking up instruments. The moviemakers have Lifeson and Lee wander their suburban hometown describing how the place has changed and visiting some old haunts, namely halls where the rock neophytes cut their teeth playing to high schoolers. Much to the audience’s delight, there was some very early footage of the band as well as a home movie of a teenaged Lifeson rebelling against his parents by declaring that he didn’t want to finish high school.
The movie moves chronologically and notes that their first break came when Canada lowered its drinking age to 18 so the band could play bars. The next came when their eponymous debut album made its way to Donna Halper, a DJ at Cleveland’s WMMS, who put “Working Man” into regular rotation. This began Rush’s assault on America. (Interestingly, Cleveland and the Midwest generally have been havens for heavy metal and progressive rock, two genres loathed by most critics.) We see John Rutsey’s departure and the arrival of Neil Peart and the band’s forays into progressive rock. Rush’s early years are very well chronicled here with rare footage and many anecdotes from the band. Plus there was a brief bit of, if memory serves, “Garden Road” as well, an early song that never made it onto any album. I presume this came from the 26 August 1974 show at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland as the gig, or at least much of it, was broadcast on the radio by WMMS.
Most documentaries about rock bands tend to give a great account of the ascent to popularity but peter out when the “glory days” are over. I recently listened to a radio doc about The Who and it didn’t even have the courtesy to end the story with the death of Keith Moon as most takes on the career of The Who do. Instead it had virtually nothing to say about the band’s career after Who’s Next. Every album through 1971 was talked about in-depth and shown as a progression for the band but this trend just came to a screeching halt with Quadrophrenia. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage gets a lot of credit from me for not ignoring any phase of the band’s career. Coming in at just under two hours, the movie could not go into great detail for every one of the band’s albums. While the synthier records, say Signals to Roll the Bones, tended to get lumped together more than those prior to 1982, I was happy to see that songs from all of those albums, excepting RtB, made it into the movie. This period wasn’t ignored or whitewashed and was given plenty of time and discussion before an interview with Lifeson about his desire for more guitar transitioned to Counterparts.
The history lesson is broken up with interviews from various rock luminaries such as Billy Corgan, Kirk Hammett, Trent Reznor, and many others. It’s hard to know just how serious Jack Black is, but his over-the-top commentary is really funny. At the other end of the spectrum, Corgan offers some very heartfelt testimonials. One expects Mike Portnoy and others from the progressive metal scene to be Rushheads and it goes without saying the Les Claypool is a fan, but it was nice to see musicians of various stripes of the hard rock spectrum pay their respects and recall Rush as an influence.
However, the real treat is hearing the band members themselves. Lifeson and Lee are clowns at heart and they are very funny. (Lee recalls how after Peart joined the band, he noticed all books the new drummer read and told Neil, “Why don’t you write the lyrics.”) Peart is more serious but he has some light-hearted moments as well. The movie tackled his darkest hours back in the late 1990s very well. His daughter and wife both died within a year of each other and their deaths sent him into some soul searching. This sequence was touching but not melodramatic or exaggerated. Instead it felt very honest and the movie as a whole avoided the Behind the Music bullshit. Then again, there wasn’t much of that to be had. As Gene Simmons noted of the time when Rush opened for Kiss, they’d be hanging with groupies while Lee, Lifeson, and Peart would go back to their hotel and watch TV.
Beyond the Lighted Stage explored all of the larger aspects of the band and its career yet, as my girlfriend noted, the viewer didn’t have to be a fan to understand anything. It was all laid out for even the casual watcher. While I wish that there had been some complete performances of songs instead of simply clips of concert footage and music videos, I also understand that trying to tell the story of a band that has been around for 40 years within a couple hours precludes lengthy performances. Presumably the DVD release will offer more.