According to Jack Black, they possess “a deep reservoir of rocket sauce.” Gene Simmons once ridiculed their disdain for groupies, while Metallica’s Kirk Hammett was awed by their “funky clothes.” Critics have called them “cancerous,” likening their frontman’s voice to “a rat caught in a ringer.”
Over the past forty years, Rush have been called many things. No matter. Sam Dunn’s magnificent new rock doc, “Beyond the Lighted Stage” (recently released on DVD), chronicles the durable Canadian trio’s staggering success in spite of this relentless naysaying. But the band’s story is merely a launching point into something more profound. In the words of “Spinal Tap’s” Martin De Begi, Dunn got more. Much More.
Enjoy compelling drama and grand adventure? Then fuck “Prince of Persia” and revel in the sight of legendary neon noisemakers pillaging the planet and answering to no-one. Blown away by buddy movies? Tow “Wild Hogs” to the wrecking yard, and savor a poignant story of three long-time musical soul-mates who cradle each other with support during unspeakable tragedy. The Rush story, boasting oddball human chemistry, uninhibited creativity, and sudden, unexpected horror, is a mighty epic.
Bassist and singer Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart are the unsung chameleons of chords. Aside from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Rush have racked up more consecutive gold records than any other band alive, yet they’ve been snubbed by the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Their indefinable goulash of a sound boasts jaw-dropping technical precision as it jumps confidently between half-hour long epics and compact anthems.
Okay, so they’re prolific and enduring. Does this make for a compelling film? You would think that “Beyond the Lighted Stage” might prove a boring slog. Rush are void of a controversial, outspoken media magnet. They’re not in the tabloids. They don’t do reality T.V. But that’s the refreshing point. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan hits the drumstick perfectly on the snare when he states, “They’re underexplained.”
Dunn burrows under Rush’s perceived image as Mysterious Cult Enigma, discovering Rush the Men. Who knew that Lee’s parents were Holocaust survivors? One senses the brilliant bassist’s need for escapist yearnings to offset a downer of a childhood. At twelve years old, Lee endured the death of his father. Later, after catching the rock bug, Lee suspected that his Perry Como-loving mother perceived him as a “drug taking freak.”
Young Lifeson, a teacher’s pet whose mother sanctioned his purchase of a guitar only after her son’s guarantee of high-scoring school report cards, eventually dropped out of high school. We also meet early drummer John Rutsey, acting as the band’s voice by introducing them to bland high school crowds who, according to his bandmates, would “sit and clap obediently.”
Later, the Rush’s evolution was propelled into high gear by two fascinating developments. In 1971, their Ontario-based stomping ground dropped its drinking age to 18, allowing the musically-blooming minors access to “drinking crowds,” described by the band as having a different, heavier vibe. After fragile diabetic Rutsey (who died in 2009) parted ways with Rush for health reasons, Lee and Lifeson hooked up with sonic percussive powerhouse Neil Peart, whose trapset wizardry remains unprecedented to this day.
Dunn skewers the commonly-held perception that Peart is some kind of arrogant, Yoda-like hermit. The respected drummer comes across not as brooding and egocentric, but as frighteningly articulate, self-effacing, and cheerful. He does, however, candidly speak his mind. In firmly unapologetic terms, Peart explains why he doesn’t sign autographs or do meet and greets. The adulation, he says, “creeps me out.”
During the late nineties, Peart endured a double dose of unspeakable tragedy. In 1997, His daughter (and only child) was killed during an auto accident. Ten months later, his common-law wife of 22 years succumbed to cancer. “Beyond the Lighted Stage” illustrates the delicate, tentative way in which Lifeson and Lee handled Peart’s grief, allowing him space to embark on a 55,000 mile motorcycle odyssey. The legendary drummer is obviously comfortable with Dunn, openly explaining this painful life phase and describing his healing road trip as a “soothing balm.”
Eventually, Peart summoned the strength to continue with the band. Rush were back – and have continued to endure. In fact, Primus bassist and Rush admirer Les Claypool suggests that the group currently seems “bigger than ever.” Claypool’s awe over Rush’s influence and staying power is echoed by other fellow musicmakers as diverse as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Uriah Heep’s Mick Box, and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Providing one of the film’s emotional high points, Corgan reflects on the emotional stirrings he felt after hearing the Rush track “Entre Nous.” Corgan’s fierce connection with the song prompted him to ask his mother to listen to its impactful verses and lyrics.
Okay, so “Beyond the Lighted Stage” gives us vivid backstage access to Rush’s three contrasting personalities, while bringing their considerable influence into focus. But it also captures the musical rhythms of their career. There’s the trippy, mythical whimsy of early music, with oddly-named ditties like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and long conceptual forays taking up entire slabs of vinyl, gradually replaced by more compact tunes and an increased reliance on keyboards.
Dunn’s film also asks the eternal question, “Why do some bands have ‘it’? How do they get ‘it’? Rush define this inexplicable splicing of all the right ingredients possessed by only the most iconic of bands. Even on a visual level, the members appear startlingly different. There’s Lee, all nose, chin, and dark locks, contrasting the toe-headed softness of Lifeson. There’s the casual approachability of both, providing a fierce contrast to drummer Peart’s more intense, “don’t fuck with me” mystique (Contrasting the offstage friendliness that Dunn captures during sit-down interviews). Through exhaustive archival footage, Dunn captures this unique synthesis.
In recent years, cinema has been gifted with a welcome, unlikely trend. Rock docs have become the new love stories, character studies, and sprawling historical epics. “Anvil” revealed how a frontman’s innocent enthusiasm and life-long friendship triumphed over despair. “Some Kind of Monster” explained the purging power of heavy metal. “Beyond the Lighted Stage” proves that beneath the quiet veneer of an unsung Canadian power trio beats the one of the biggest hearts in music.