Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
3 1/2 stars
Awkward headbangers rejoice: It's finally cool to like Rush
A new feature film documentary allows Canadian boomers to travel back to high school. Hopefully this time they'll find time for kids they once spurned for being gawky and uncool. Turns out there was a lot more to them than most people knew.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is the story of Canada's tragically unhip - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, charter members of a group that has sold 40 million or so albums and discs since 1973, without ever getting a whole lotta love. Never mind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Rush never even made it on American TV until funnyman Stephen Colbert invited them on The Colbert Report in 2008.
And yet the three band members are Hoser Heroes to a generation of quiet outsiders who've needed an occasional wallop of Rush-specific heavy-metal thunder. Fans, the movie makes clear, see themselves in the group. They may idolize Eric Clapton or Neil Young, but they identify with singer-bassist Lee.
Directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen (Metal: A Headbanger's Journey), Beyond the Lighted Stage gets off to a magical start: the band members fool around backstage before a big arena show, performing a little step that could be the opening credits for the old black-and-white sitcom My Three Sons. Then they hit the stage.
Presto, it's 1970 again. Rush is in the rock-'n'-roll uniform of the day - bellbottoms, shoulder-length hair, tight T-shirts - playing another high-school gym. Maybe a Sadie Hawkins dance. There is always a basketball hoop halo above the stage. After that, more archival footage: guitarist Lifeson in someone's basement, a waterfall of hair cascading over his axe as he leans into a thousand-note solo. Teenage girls, chewing gum, look on, thrilled.
Interspersed with vintage footage, Lee, Lifeson and Peart chuckle over their bellbottomed past in interviews. The band, they explain, was much like its audience: High school has always been a chore for the uncool, and since the boys skated on their ankles, the NHL was out. Still, they needed to be heard. Figured rock was their ticket out of Willowdale, a Toronto suburb.
Their parents, pragmatic European immigrants, were appalled. The boys kept playing. Eventually put out a record. Toured with Kiss; Gene Simmons and company loved them but wondered why the three Canadians were so serious. No time for groupies. And what was with the epic, sci-fi-themed song suites? Were they trying not to get on the radio?
Their label wondered the same thing. Told them to shape up with a slimmer, radio-friendly sound.
They figured if they couldn't be ourselves, there was no sense in being. So in 1976 the group released its most ambitious album: 2112, opening with a sprawling 20-minute suite that featured a movement entitled The Temples of Syrinx. Bingo, the album went platinum, earning the band an attentive, world-wide audience.
What Rush instinctively understood in 1976 was that, in tapping into their lives, they would never run out of inspiration. Indeed, their music has allowed the band confront some major life issues, such as Lee's parents' war-time internment in concentration camps and the tragic death of Peart's teenaged daughter.
Dunn and McFadyen have done Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart the service of resolving their eventful, four-decade career. It's a smart, lyrical, often funny movie. (Celebrity fan Jack Black is in vintage, School of Rock form.) Rush's fan base will be ecstatic. Even non-fans, the cool kids, might find themselves wondering if they can maybe fit into their old bellbottoms and do over a year or two of high school.