Good thing Geddy Lee is a pack rat.
Had the singer/bassist for legendary Canadian power-rock trio Rush not amassed boxes and boxes of band lore, Toronto filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen may have missed their opportunity to unveil an Ali Baba's cave of rock history in their new documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
The doc - made by the team who paid homage to the rock gods with docs Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Global Metal and Iron Maiden: Flight 666 - co-opens the Hot Docs Film Festival Thursday, fresh off a triumphant world premiere of at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last Saturday. The movie opens in theatres in June.
Dunn and McFadyen tell the story of one of rock's most influential groups, what Lee archly calls "the world's biggest cult band" in one of many interviews with Rush that weave through the two-hour movie. Fans will drool over the gold mine of artifacts, from drummer Neil Peart's artful handwritten lyrics, to what McFadyen calls a "Holy Grail" find: never-before-seen film of a high school performance by Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson with the original Rush drummer, John Rutsey.
How did they find all of it?
"A lot of it came from Geddy," says Dunn, who also has a degree in anthropology from York University. "He has boxes and boxes in his house of old memorabilia from the band, from lyric sheets to a ton of photographs. A lot of fans helped us out, too. If there's one group of fans that know how to collect, it's Rush fans. And we stumbled on some real gems."
Chief among them was the lost footage of the band playing a high school gig in Willowdale, where Lee and Lifeson grew up together as best friends. Dunn says they found an unlabeled tape in the basement of the band's management office and discovered it was footage of Rutsey playing with Rush: the only known film of him with the group. (He left the band in 1973 for health reasons, soon after their first album was released, and was replaced by Peart. Rutsey died in 2008.)
McFadyen says they decided to turn their cameras on Rush because they were "huge fans" and Rush is "a band that deserves it."
But when they first approached the band, it took some convincing. "Geddy had said: 'Are you sure you want to do a doc on us, because we don't really think we're that interesting,'" McFadyen says with a grin.
They had worked with Lee before - he appears in Global Metal - and the filmmakers had earned the singer's support.
Once the band signed on, Dunn and McFadyen were given carte blanche. "They knew we were foolish enough to want to tackle 40 years of history," laughs Dunn.
As a child of first-generation Canadian parents, like Lee and Lifeson (whose parents provide some wonderful onscreen moments in candid interviews), McFadyen felt there was another layer to the Rush story and the filmmakers were anxious to tell it. They were aided by treasures from the past, including documentary footage shot by pioneering Canadian director Alan King for his 1972 film Come on Children. A teenaged Lifeson, then known as Alex Zivojinovich, is seen arguing with his parents about why he doesn't need to finish school in order to pursue a career as a musician.
Interviews with a wide range of musicians who are Rush fans - including Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and actor Jack Black doing some very impressive air drumming - give perspective on the band's influence.
"We never knew they were Rush fans until we started doing the research," Dunn says. "This was great, because they aren't people you expect to be Rush fans."
The filmmakers say they made the film to tap into that spirit of the unexpected; it's not intended to be just for fans, but a compelling story about commitment, friendship and devotion to making music.
"Rush is a unique story," says McFadyen. "It's our first real human and emotional story. It's the first time we've been able to capture in depth the personalities and motivations and struggles a band has gone through to do what they do and I think we captured their humour and some of their toughest moments.
"And for us that's a pretty big step forward."