Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
[Two and a half stars]
Zoë Vision/Alliance Films
Directed by Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen
24 gold records, 14 platinum records, 3 multi-platinum records and over 40 million records sold – throw these statistics at a rock music aficionado and they’ll guess The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They would all be wrong. These statistics belong to one of the most prolific and influential yet curiously marginalised bands in the history of music, Canadian prog rockers Rush, and that itself should tell you that there’s a story in there somewhere but like all things Rush, it seems to have escaped the notice of the world at large. That’s what filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen (Metal: A Headbangers Journey, Iron Maiden: Flight 666) were looking to rectify with their retrospective of the band’s 42-year career.
But they don’t get very far. They don’t even seem to be trying too hard. Dunn and McFadyen’s perfunctory treatment of the band’s story barely skims over Rush’s remarkable career without once sinking its teeth into it. The storytelling is simple and sequential, chronologically tracing the band’s journey from high-school misfits to arena-rocking prog heroes, making a few pit stops at significant events and concluding with the successful release of the band’s last release, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage runs like a tutorial in basic music documentary filmmaking: Open with establishing shot of band heading out on to stage, get celebrity musicians to talk about how the band has influenced them, skim through band discography, add touching personal story, end on triumphant note. It might have worked for a less accomplished, paint-by-numbers band but it feels like it does Rush a disservice. As a band, Rush – guitarist Alex Lifeson, frontman Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart – didn’t have a lot of things working for them. They weren’t lookers (except for maybe the eternally boyish good looks of Lifeson), their songs were almost entirely devoid of hooks, and none close to that magic three-minute length that radios prized. Instead they had proggy, longwinded epics that drew from The Fountainhead when the norm was The Lord of the Rings and had a fashion sense that could only be explained as geeks in geisha drag, but made impossibly good music that was ignored by the mainstream media entirely. That much the documentary establishes but then again, this is what we always knew about Rush.
The most interesting parts of the documentary are supplied by the band themselves. Lifeson and Lee talk about their years growing up in immigrant families in Toronto, Canada with a touch of wistfulness and good-humoured ribbing, recounting their misfit days as they tried to play school dances in odd-time signatures. There’s some intriguing archive footage here, not just of the school dances but one of Lifeson sitting with his family around the dining table, having an argument with his parents about dropping out of school to make a career in music and another of him tripping out in a friends basement noodling on the guitar while the rest of his friends look mystified or bored.
The documentary also covers the band’s career in chapters, dividing them according to the band’s distinctive musical eras, from the prog-metal beginnings to their kimono era and the less popular synthesiser phase. The most striking aspect of the band’s career is their intense camaraderie; it’s plainly obvious that the band’s ties go beyond just a casual friendship and that all three closer than even family. The documentary also showcases the band members’ personalities unequivocally – Lee and Lifeson are easy going and social while Peart is painfully shy, which is explained as the reason behind his famous recalcitrance. For the most part the band seems happy-go-lucky, except when tragedy strikes – in 1996 Peart lost his daughter in an automobile accident and in 1997 he lost his wife to cancer – but that’s when the trio’s intense bond is brought to the forefront. At this point the band went on an indefinite hiatus when Peart took off on his bike for a 88,000 mile bike ride to catharsis and critics and the band members themselves decided it might be the end of Rush. This should have been the most compelling part of the doc; it’s obvious there’s a story here just in that ride of Peart’s but the filmmakers choose instead to keep a safe distance from the pain and the anguish, which might have been commendable had it not comes off as a cop-out on the filmmakers part.
The documentary definitely has its moments – Sebastian Bach and Jack Black as talking heads add an unexpected element of humour to the proceedings – but for the most part the doc feels like a wikipedia article translated to film and for one of the world’s most interesting but overlooked bands, this feels like gross injustice.