In the basement of Anthem, Rush's Toronto management company, there sat an old video tape in an obscure mid-1970s format. It was apparently labelled "Pinkpop," referring to a Dutch music festival, but no one was sure.
When Scot McFadyen and co-director Sam Dunn began researching Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage - surprisingly, the first full, career-spanning documentary of the band - the filmmakers searched everywhere for photos and footage of Rush's early years, since the band formed in 1968. "We didn't initially think there were any moving images of Rush at all before 1976 or '77," McFadyen says.
Anthem offered up its collection of old material to the directors. But that one old video tape was so outmoded - using an early cassette standard called EIAJ-II - that it had to be sent to Los Angeles to be transferred to digital video.
What came back was the Holy Grail of Rushdom. It wasn't from a performance at Pinkpop. It showed the band, still in its Led Zeppelin phase and with original drummer John Rutsey, playing in front of an audience of high-school kids at Laura Secord Secondary in St. Catharines, Ont. The band is rockin', if generically so, and barely older than the kids clapping along.
The rarity of old clips goes a long way in explaining why the band remains enigmatic. In the documentary, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins makes the key point that no one has really explained what make Rush Rush. So many other classic-rock totems have been analyzed to death. But as Corgan says, someone needs to explain the essence of the band's influence on generations of musicians and its (mostly male) fan base the world over.
"It's not your typical rock 'n' roll story. It's not like the Doors or Joy Division, where you know there's this tragic ending. There isn't that obvious story arc here. What became obvious here was just them as people," says McFadyen, who grew up in the Toronto suburbs, like the members of Rush, and had a brother who had the band's "starman" logo painted on his door.
The three band members - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart - aren't secretly hyper-self-conscious. Nor are they staunch individualists, despite Peart's lyrical flirtations with Ayn Rand. Peart does talk about his apparent aloofness in the film, which is really just shyness. He also describes his soul-searching after the deaths of his daughter in a car crash and of his former wife from cancer. And Lee and Lifeson did grow up as slightly nerdy musicians, looking for some relief from the pressure that their immigrant parents put on them.
No topic was taboo. "When we sat down to interview [Lifeson] at one point, he was, like, 'Well, do you guys want to talk about what happened in Florida?'" says McFadyen. The guitarist had a brief scuffle with police at a New Year's celebration in the early hours of 2004. "And we were like, 'No.' We only have two hours [in the documentary] and when you look at Rush's career, that was a blip."
The filmmakers already had a connection with Lee through his appearance in their 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, which followed Dunn on an anthropological trip through the world of heavy metal. Later, the filmmakers simply e-mailed the band out of the blue about doing a documentary.
"Geddy said, 'First of all, I really don't know why you want to do it. I gotta warn you, we're not that interesting.' In fact, that's the last line of the film," McFadyen says.
But as Dunn adds: "I think with Geddy, he recognized that we approached heavy metal and hard rock intelligently, regardless of whether we were fans or not."
The two are hardcore fans, though, and have built a career charting metal and heavy rock. Their last film was the award-winning Iron Maiden: Flight 666, which followed that band on a 2008 tour (Rush didn't sign on due to the commercial success of that film; the band had already agreed to do the documentary before the Iron Maiden film was shot). And the Toronto-based filmmakers' next project is a documentary series for VH1 exploring the plethora of sub-genres within metal.
Rush, on the other hand, is a genre unto itself. "We're talking about over 40 years of history and over 20 albums. It's a huge subject matter," Dunn says. "You can't put your finger on what Rush is. Rush is not a singular thing. Their sound, their look, everything about the band has changed over their career."
Humour also plays a role. Take the incongruous clothes dryers situated behind Lee during the 2002 Vapor Trails tour: In later years, Lee plugged his bass directly into the overall sound system, rather than milking his bass amps on stage - the dryers were used to fill the space behind him.
"But it does show that they really do have a sense of humour about themselves. And that's what really changes this film. Everyone assumes that Rush, because their music is so serious, must be really serious guys. But if they took themselves really seriously, they would not be nearly as interesting. They can laugh about the kimonos [worn during the height of their prog phase]. They can laugh about the fashion," McFadyen says.
But then he adds, treading carefully with his words, "They can laugh about a few things in the music. The music is what they take seriously."
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage plays Toronto's Hot Docs festival Thursday at 9:30 and Friday at 4 p.m. It will have a special one-night theatrical screening in major cities across Canada on June 10. It is slated for release on DVD a few weeks after that.