Short of protecting a beaver habitat or taking a bullet for a Mountie, making a documentary about Rush is just about the most honourable thing two Canadians could possibly do.
The Banger Films team behind such hard-rocking movies as 'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey,' the Juno Award-winning Iron Maiden concert film 'Flight 666' and the forthcoming VH-1 series 'Metal Evolution,' Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen spent nearly three years creating the first comprehensive film history of the Toronto-based power trio.
The fruits of their labour - 'Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage' - lands in movie theatres in Europe on June 7 and across North America on June 10. It will then be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 29, the same day Rush begins a summer tour of North America.
"They're nice guys," Rush lead singer Geddy Lee tells Spinner, "and they seem very passionate about what they're doing so when they have a request of you, it's very hard to say no. They came over to the house and sifted through all these endless plastic containers of Rush ephemera that I've somehow collected over the years. It's been interesting to help sort through a lot of those things, things that I forgot I had, pictures of us from the very old days."
Yet Lee also admits to sometimes feeling uncomfortable during the archeological expedition that the film represented. "It's a bit uncomfortable dwelling so much on what has happened - we are more used to looking forward."
Die-hard fans, however, will be thrilled by the doc's wealth of never-before-seen archival material, much of it drawn from the personal collections of members Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. It also features concert footage from nearly every era of the band, from their earliest days as bluesy, Led Zeppelin-style teen rockers from the unglamorous suburbs of Toronto (including recently discovered footage of the group playing an early high-school gig with original drummer John Rutsey), to their breakthrough years as robe-wearing prog-metal pioneers, to the propulsive, new wave-influenced power trio that emerged in the early '80s, to the still-dexterous unit of the '90s and beyond.
(That storied legacy is evidently on the band's collective mind, too - Rush will perform their classic 'Moving Pictures' in its entirety on the new tour.)
Interviews with Rush fanatics such as Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, Metallica's Kirk Hammett and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor help paint a fuller, richer portrait of Rush's impact on the lives of listeners and peers than viewers might've gotten from a straightforward rendering of the band's 42-year history. What's more, the movie's many revealing and often very funny moments with Geddy, Alex and Neil, both individually and together, gives 'Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage' an appeal that extends far beyond the core audience of devotees who can recite every lyric on '2112.'
McFadyen says he was amazed by the reactions he saw at the film's world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the fest's audience award. "I looked out and there were people crying so it was pretty intense," he says. "[Viewers] see the friendship they have together and just how much integrity they have as artists. This is almost as much a story of friendship as of a band and their career."
That said, the band's unique career arc gets the analysis it deserves - the film presents the word-of-mouth success of '2112' as the event that ensured Rush's artistic autonomy, as well as the millions-strong fanbase the group has enjoyed ever since. And though the band has long occupied a place outside of rock music's mainstream, 'Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage' looks at the many manifestations of Rush love in recent years, ranging from tributes by the 'Colbert Report' and 'South Park' to the band's appearance in the 2008 comedy 'I Love You, Man.'
The fact that so many comedians have paid tribute maybe isn't so surprising - Dunn says a breakthrough moment for the film's creators came when they realized "these are some of the funniest guys we've ever met in our lives." Of course, this may come as a surprise to fans who adore Rush for their tricky shifts in time signature and highfalutin lyrics about future dystopias, but Rush's sheer lack of pretension about themselves is endlessly endearing.
Lee agrees that humour is an integral part of the relationships within the band, but it's something they are careful about being too public about. "I'm sure that we have a lot of fans who have less of a sense of humor about us than we do," he says. "But that's easier for us. To some of these fans, they've found something in our music that has really helped them or given them some sort of positive reinforcement or great comfort. And that's a serious thing in their lives - to make that into some sort of joke in their view belittles what they've gotten out of it, so I understand that. It's completely in the eye of the beholder."
Dunn, for one, appreciated the chance to reveal this side of the band. "The fact that their personalities - being so humble and good-natured and really quite goofy - were in direct contrast to the kind of music that they make was a real lifesaver for the film," he says. "That allowed it to become something much more than a chronicling of the evolution of the band's sound, which in and of itself is a pretty heady and fascinating topic. But on top of that, we were able to explore the fact that these are guys who have a deep love for one another and that's something you don't find in rock 'n' roll too often."
It was this "human element" that most fascinated the filmmakers about the band. Dunn says it also got them thinking that the movie could appeal to "a broader audience than just the rabid Rush fans - of which there are plenty, of course." Dunn laughs. "And we hope they love it too!"
Those fans can rest assured that the band was closely involved with the project, going so far as to give the filmmakers access to family photo albums and home movies. Of course, getting the members to really open up required a considerable amount of time and trust.
"With Geddy and Alex, it just took them a little while to get out of their usual stories and the way they usually tell them since they do a lot of press," says McFadyen. "It was a matter of doing a lot of interviews over a long period of time, and doing stuff like playing tennis with the guys. They just got to know us and we became friends."
The level of intimacy they achieved is especially evident in the interviews with Peart, who's long preferred to stay out of the limelight and let his more extroverted bandmates contend with the demands of fans and the media. The filmmakers also had to tread carefully around the painful subject of the deaths of Peart's daughter and wife in the late 1990s, twin tragedies that put the band on hold for several years.
"We always expected Neil to be the most reticent or resistant to the film because he is a private person," says Dunn. "He's obviously been through quite a lot of hardship in his life and he communicates to people primarily through his lyrics and through his books. By contrast, he was perhaps the most interested of the three in sitting down and talking about the struggles of the band and everything that they had fought for. That was a big surprise for us and a real treat for Rush fans because they don't get to hear Neil talk all that much."
Adds McFadyen, "Our goal was not to delve into the actual events and how he felt about those events but how he healed and came out of that process. We got very close to matters that made him very uncomfortable, but then as we moved away from it, he was more and more comfortable."
It helped to get him out on the road and shoot him riding one of his beloved motorcycles. Nevertheless, McFadyen says he's the one band member who hasn't seen the movie yet.
"He emailed to tell us his parents had seen it and they loved it and thanked us. His parents thought we dealt with things really tastefully and he congratulated on winning the prize at Tribeca. He said, 'It almost makes me want to watch it myself now!'"