Friday, July 9, 2010

WHEN THE MEEK INHERIT THE EARTH: a review of "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage"

This film is a 2010 release that has been screened at film festivals but not in commercial theaters, to my knowledge. It has, however, recently aired on VH1-Classic and has just been released on DVD.

The following review contains a preamble of considerable length. Considering the subject matter, it somehow seems more than fitting. Please enjoy!

"Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage" Directed by Scot McFayden & Sam Dunn

***1/2 (three and a half stars)

1980 was the exact year in which my musical horizons expanded in ways that would forever alter my life. For much of my 11 years, my music listening had entirely consisted of the easily digestible albums filled with the classic songcraft of three minute selections as well as the endless consumption of the Chicago AM rock, pop and soul radio stations, with WLS-AM as my personal favorite. The full greatness of The Beatles was also rapidly surging through my head, heart and musical dreams. But by 1979, I was beginning to be challenged. Christmas of that year provided me with an unprecedented musical bounty, as I received a slew of record albums from bands I adored plus some profound surprises. In addition to seeing titles from E.L.O., Queen, KISS and the Eagles, there sat two monumentally groundbreaking albums that demonstrably pushed the medium of rock and roll a quantum leap forward. The first was Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," an album so ahead of its time, that I didn't fully embrace until almost 15 years after its release. The other was Pink Floyd's harrowing double concept rock opera opus,"The Wall." It was an album so unlike anything I had ever conceived of listening to before, that it terrified me. So much so that it seemed to be "evil" and I hid it away, not to be rediscovered, and eventually adored, until many months later.

What really broke the glass ceiling, opening up the sky to new musical horizons occurred on a day when I was fiddling around with a new boom box I had received. While scrolling the tuning knob up and down the dial and switching buttons up, down, on and off, I discovered FM radio where the DJs weaved a darker almost mystical spell, spinning music was decidedly stranger, foreboding and more dangerous than anything Gene Simmons could spew from his voluminous tongue. And then, as if it were a predestined moment of introduction between music and soul, I heard it...

The first sound I heard was a preliminary blaze of guitar, which, to my ears, sounded like what could only be described as a fanfare. Afterwards, the song officially began with a force and majesty I had previously unheard. The solo guitar led into a tremendously tight riff from the full band that widely opened up into the main musical piece, which contained such a supreme melodic and powerful velocity that it gave me the sensation of what only could be described as flying. Then, ensuring that I would not be left behind in the musical jet stream, the high pitched, inviting vocals appeared and began to sing the following words, "Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive. Plays that song that's so elusive and the magic music makes your morning mood..." From that moment and over the remaining time of the four minute and fifty seven second song, this music spoke directly to me!

The song was "The Spirit Of Radio." The band was Rush. The connection between artist and listener had been completely forged and solidified.

Throughout the entirety of my middle school and high school years, my fascination, admiration and allegiance to Rush, the musical collective of bassist/lead vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alec Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, intensified. I poured over every album I purchased, listening repeatedly in stunned, often slack-jawed amazement at the enormous sound these three people were able to produce. The songs carried the symphonics of a full orchestra while pummeling you with rock swagger. The songs possessed the swing of jazz filtered through elongated science-fiction themed progressive rock epics. And then, there was the actual performance of the music itself! It was as if these three supremely talented musicians could bend the fabric of time and space at seemingly effortless will with a skill which often occurred with the velocity of a hurricane. (My Dad once joked when listening to the legendary jazz fusion track YYZ, “I know why they call themselves ‘Rush.” They’re always rushing to see who can get to the end of the song first!!”) In addition to the actual music were the earnest, sincere lyrics that not only spoke to the heart but were decidedly literary as they contained scholarly references and a vocabulary atypical of most pop/rock songs.

As I continued to be enthralled by their music, I discovered that Rush redefined and revolutionized the rock power trio. They were intricately complex yet highly accessible. They introduced me to a new world of hard rock and progressive rock artists like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson and Genesis (ironically, the very artists they were themselves influenced by). And drummer Neil Peart, in particular, was (and remains) a musical hero as he is one of the indisputable Jedi masters of the instrument and redefined exactly what the role of a rock drummer could be.

As I LOVED this band so completely and did find several kindred spirits that loved their music as much as I, Rush was not a popular band to behold. There was a certain geek factor that, for some reason went along with the band, and that perception did create a certain divide across the school hallways. I remember how a dear friend and I somehow (and misguidedly) convinced the DJ at one cafeteria school dance to play the Overture to Rush’s 1976 classic, Ayn Rand inspired, science fiction treatise, “2112.” That obviously did not go over well. There was another time I recall during high school as one English class was entrenched in The Lord Of The Flies. As we discussed the nature of fear as depicted by author William Golding, I was inspired to bring in the lyrics and a cassette version of three Rush selections from their then continuing “Fear” song cycle. This also did not bode well for me, as one classmate uttered scornfully, “I really didn’t think that I was going to school to hear Rush songs!”

“Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” a strong, insightful and award winning new documentary by filmmakers Scot McFayden & Sam Dunn affectionately wants to bridge the gap between the Rush disciple, the novice and the ones who couldn’t care less and it greatly succeeds. McFayden and Dunn take the ample time to explore the question of exactly how can a band who is entering their fortieth year as a vital musical unit, that is also currently ranked third in consecutive gold or platinum albums after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, that is revered by generations of fans and musicians has also been marginalized and viewed as what Lee calls, "The World's Biggest Cult Band." It is a celebratory film about friendship, commitment, ferocious determination and not even one tale of rock and roll excess or drug induced mania is present at all. For me, this film proved not only to be a source of vindication for this band that I have loved for most of my life but also a source of illumination as these three men have also proven to be some of rock’s more mysterious musicians, never flailing in front cameras or magazine for attention—wisely letting their music do the talking for them.

The film details the band's beginnings as we are quickly introduced to two of Rush's founding members. Like the sympathetically recalled teenaged misfits and dreamers of their darkly elegant 1982 song “Subdivisions,” Geddy Lee, the son of Holocaust survivors, and Alex Lifeson, the son of Serbian immigrants, fatefully found each other in suburban Toronto, Canada during Junior High, both armed with dreams of becoming musicians and following in the footsteps of their musical heroes. Joined shortly thereafter by Rush's original drummer John Rutsey in 1971, the trio embarked upon tours of the local bay and high school dance circuit and eventually released their eponymously titled debut album in 1974.

Enter Neil Peart, at the dawn of Rush’s first U.S. tour, which Rutsey declined to take part in due to his health issues with diabetes, and the definitive version of the band was officially born. From this point on and with few obstacles along the way, Rush carved out their own, distinctive musical path and ultimately stormed the stadiums, airwaves and albums sales with now classic albums like “A Farewell To Kings” (1977), “Permanent Waves” (1980) as well as “Moving Pictures” (1981), one of their most celebrated releases which features the iconic “Tom Sawyer.”

In addition to new interviews with no less than The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Metallica’s Kirk Hammet, Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, and bassist Les Claypool, among other current musicians, all influenced by Rush, the film deftly charts out Rush’s history with oodles of archival concert, studio and interview footage. Best of all, it is a resounding pleasure to witness Lee, Lifeson and especially, the notoriously reticent and surprisingly loquacious Peart in brand new interviews throughout.

Now of course, as a longtime fan, I certainly would have preferred even more insight into their songwriting and recoding process, more information devoted to key albums in their discography and even information as to the origin of their band’s name. But again, this is a film meant to reach outwards to anyone who chooses to view it so I can understand certain omissions. Besides, McFayden and Dunn have something even more important on their filmmaking agenda. As all three men ruminate over their shared history, musical highs and difficulties, is it enlightening to witness their deep bonds, acceptance and understanding of each other’s personal foibles. This is especially apparent regarding their grueling touring schedules, creative differences and their relationships with their devoted fans (Lee and Lifeson tend to make time for fans while the shyer, more intense Peart typically will not).

Lee, Lifeson and Peart all present themselves as humble family men and it astounded me to see that three musicians of their caliber never took their collective eyes off of the proverbial prize or ever took their good fortune or talent for granted. We see them rehearse, practice and strive to always improve themselves. One sequence inthe film, entitled "The Yoda Of Drums," details how Peart studied with a jazz drummer, for a period long into the band's deeply established career, simply for the betterment of the relationship between himself and his instrument. Other sections detail their extreme discipline and devotion to their craft, which proved to be a source of admiration to the bands they have toured with over the years.

The emotional centerpiece of the film arrives when confronting a devastating tragedy I had previously heard only scant details about. After concluding another world tour, Neil Peart’s world was shattered completely when his daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife passed away from cancer, all in the space of less than one year, effectively placing Rush on a six year hiatus and leaving any potential future in doubt. How Lee, Lifeson and Peart all dealt with this wrenching experience and rebuilt their lives together and their openness to discuss it at all was profoundly revealing. It was remarkable to view how this band strove to place their friendships and families first when many other bands would have kept the gravy train rolling along with new musicians. And mostly, to see how their decisions concerning Peart would translate to their fan base, especially once they did indeed decide to return to recording and touring, was truly uplifting. You can easily feel the wave of adoration and respect the fans have towards the band and the appreciation Rush feels in return. The symbiotic relationship between fan and artist has not been this successfully depicted on an emotional level for me in quite some time and I believe it is this particular connection that will allow this film to transcend their own hefty fan base and reach non-listeners, potentially creating new fans and admirers.
And I think it was that very emotional connection that McFayden and Dunn tapped into the strongest for their film.

If you’ll allow me to return to my personal experience with the music of Rush for another moment, this will all become clearer. After my Freshman year of college, when I saw Rush in a spectacular concert for the only time during their triumphant 1987 “Hold Your Fire” tour, the band and I began to chart out different paths as our collective musical tastes were expanding in ways that didn’t align themselves. I began to listen to them less. I didn’t seek out their subsequent releases anymore. However, I was always thrilled to see when they did release new music or embark upon another sold out world tour. It made me happy to know that they were out there, still plugging away and charting out the musical voyage of their making and to their satisfaction. It was as if I were receiving small postcards from the void, alerting me to their whereabouts, and I pleased to know that they were still out there. “Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage,” was like a full blooded reunion with treasured friends from my past and with the best reunions, this one inspired me to remain in touch and re-ignite the flame that once burned so brightly within my musical heart. I am already charting out the “missing years” we had, hearing the peak and valleys through which they traveled over the previous 20 years or so. I am also looking to the future as the band has released a new single pointing towards a new conceptual release for 2011.

In an inexplicable way, my renewed friendship with the band that has meant so much to me only occurred through the viewing of this effective film and I graciously invite you to check it out yourselves. For the long time fans like myself, it is a treasure to see this band finally gaining a wider notice for their rich musical legacy. But for all of us, especially the uninitiated, "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage" is the antithesis of nearly every episode of "Behind the Music" you've ever seen as it shows how persistence, prodigious talent and the healthy bonds of communal respect carried three suburban misfits to the top of the world.

May they always remain there.


  1. Scott, I can't believe I haven't read this review until now - sorry! This is so so wonderful and does for me what it sounds like the movie did for you. Many thoughts are racing through my head and I can tell I'm about to spew a boatload of memories so, in the word's of Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, "Hold on to your butts!"
    What a perfect encapsulation of what Rush meant to me. And I'm not sure if I've ever told you this, but tracing my love for the band back, I truly have YOU to thank for moving me from 'casual fan' into 'disciple'. This happened with Genesis as well. I remember multiple conversations during your shifts working at the library (hope I didn't interfere with your job performance too much) where I suddenly became aware, through your praise of Rush, that this band I had casually listened to was a source of far more inspiration than I had previously been aware of.
    What followed for me was an immersion into the Rush catalog which was my first experience since my childhood love of the Beatles of internalizing the entire collected works of a band, and reveling in the musical journey they have taken. And, like you, listening to Neal Peart suddenly redefined what I thought of as the role of a rock drummer in an ensemble - or at least what was possible. Many many homework-procrastinating hours ensued at home and in the halls of U-High in my quest to ACCURATELY (or at least MOSTLY accurately) air-drum to various Rush tracks, starting with Entre Nous, and working my way up to Spirit of Radio and Time Stand Still - never ACTUALLY touching a drum set of course. I never really did conquer the difficult ones like YYZ or La Villa Strangiato. I am a keyboard player (with some guitar skill) after all :)
    Also like you, my active interest in the band waned a bit after I got to college and was suddenly opened up to an entire world of college radio music. I did reconnect with the band through their 1989 album Presto (and subsequently saw them live in Portland), but my connection waned during the 90s as did their output.
    In 2002 I was excited to see the release of Vapor Trails which reignited my love for the band, and has continued (though I admit I have only acquired the post-1996 new STUDIO releases). So happy to see that these guys decided to keep going, as they clearly have more to offer.
    So - I have managed to write a tome-length review of your review - lol! But it's just my long-winded way of just saying thanks for the memories. I cannot wait to receive and watch this movie now.

  2. Hey "mb"!! I am just now seeing your comment and I am so glad that you had some time to read this review.

    Since seeing the movie, I decided to give the post 1987 studio albums a whirl since I really had NO IDEA of what they were like and man, they remain the band I had loved so much when I was younger while plunging so deeply into more direct and wrenching spiritual themes--understandably so, with Peart's life experiences to deal with.

    "Vapor Trail," "Counterparts," and "Snakes & Arrows" in particular have really knocked me for a loop and it is so awe-dropping to me to hear a band that is still this vital and probably even better than they were back in the 70s and 80s.

    I am looking forward to hearing what you think about the film after you get a chance to see it.