Review: Rush Doc Charts Journey of Unlikely Rock Heroes

By Michael Calore,, June 18, 2010

However you feel about Rush, you have to admit the band has something special.

Critics have always shrugged at the Canadian trio. Rush's intellectual lyrics about Mithril steel and black holes can seem overwrought, the band's lengthy orchestral workouts can prove confounding, and the singer's siren wail remains a love-it or hate-it affair.

But slowly and deliberately, Rush has built a massive cult following and developed into one of the biggest bands in the world - if not the entire galaxy, as some of their fans would attest.

In the new career-spanning documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, an unrated film that heads to DVD and cable TV after its limited theatrical run, we see a moving portrait of three goofy guys from Toronto who dropped out of high school to play in a rock band. Their parents hated the idea, the musicians possessed limited fashion sense and sex appeal, and they were too young to play anywhere other than church dances.

But in 1971, the drinking age in their neck of the woods dropped to 18, and Rush began gigging at bars six nights a week, playing British Invasion standards and dipping their toes into heavy metal. The rest is unlikely rock history.

Countless cinematic gems from the band's early days fill the first half of the movie. Super-8 footage of a teenage Lifeson shredding on guitar, photos of singer and bassist Lee at his bar mitzvah, original drummer John Rutsey (who died in 2008) mugging in a skimpy swimsuit.

They may have looked weird, but these musicians could tear it up. And they kept at it, parlaying early regional success into tours supporting Kiss and Uriah Heep.

The filmmakers (Banger Films' Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, whose previous work includes the excellent Iron Maiden: Flight 666) intercut early footage with interviews with Lee, Lifeson and drummer-lyricist Neil Peart, hired to replace Rutsey after the band's first record. This revamped version of Rush has been together since 1974.

How does a rock band stay together through four decades? For one, the trio's musical chemistry is undeniable. They also managed to avoid the drugs-and-groupies path that leads so many bands to break up. There's also true friendship and love among Lee, Lifeson and Peart. In the film, they constantly bust each other up, and they have trouble keeping a straight face whenever any two of them get in a room together.

Further insight into Rush's longevity comes at the film's midpoint, when the band is prepping its fourth album, 2112. They had dumped the Led Zeppelin wannabe thing and had begun experimenting with longer songs, more complex arrangements and mythical themes, as in songs like "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and "The Fountain of Lamneth." Fans turned a deaf ear to the new sound and Rush's concert ticket sales tanked. The record label wasn't happy: The band members sensed their 15 minutes were almost up.

Deciding they'd rather go down fighting than cave to The Man, the trio took what it thought would be its last trip into the studio. The result was 2112, a concept album whose title track is a heavy, side-long epic.

This time, the kids dug it. The record went gold solely through word of mouth. The 22-minute musical narrative didn't get any radio play, and critics dismissed it as a pretentious joke, but the fans responded to the message of the lyrics, which speak of the importance of individual freedoms in an oppressive society. Some of those fans even started buying Ayn Rand novels after Peart name-checked her in the liner notes.

The album's success earned Rush its independence - Lifeson says after 2112, the record company never questioned the band's vision again.

From there, things only get bigger, and Beyond the Lighted Stage documents Rush's growth into stadium headliners (1981's "Tom Sawyer," their most well-known song, doubled the band's audience). Around this time, you start to see a weird parallel form between Rush and their fans.

Disproportionately male, doughy, well-educated and over 30, Rush fans know their favorite band is profoundly unhip. But they just don't care. They possess such a tremendous sense of dead-serious devotion that they seem like brainwashed children when McFadyen and Dunn turn their cameras on them. They've been to hundreds of concerts, and they sing along and air-drum through every one of them. Lee muses that Rush might be the "biggest cult band on Earth."

Bona-fide mainstream stars show up on-screen to echo the sentiments of the common fans. Billy Corgan from The Smashing Pumpkins tells how he sat his mother down and played her "Entre Nous," giving her the album jacket to read along with in hopes she would better understand his connection to the music. Kirk Hammett of Metallica describes how Lifeson's solo in "La Villa Strangiato" caused him to rethink his own approach to the guitar. Les Claypool gushes about the band, and a very stoned Jack Black riffs on the cosmic juju of Peart's lyrics.

Along with that cult band status comes the inevitable hero worship. We see the guys signing autographs at a Toronto restaurant and doing post-show meet-and-greets. Lee and Lifeson shake hands and pose for photos, but Peart refuses to interact with fans. The whole idea of fan adulation makes him uncomfortable. He's painfully shy and private - one of his lyrics, "I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend," is telling. In his home movies, Peart exhibits the same bookish wallflower vibe at 14 that he does at 57.

The film drags a bit near the end, mostly because the focus turns to some heavy internal band stuff. First, there's Lee's decision to switch to a synth-based sound, which alienated all but the most hard-core Rush fans and severely tested Lifeson's patience. Then comes Peart's search for a new drum technique. Lastly, there's the death of Peart's wife and daughter, a crushing blow that sent him on a two-year solo motorcycle sabbatical. He disappeared to grieve, clear his head and rediscover his own humanity. We learn that everyone in the Rush family thought the whole thing was over.

But Peart climbs behind the kit again for the film's coda. Or maybe it's an encore. Or maybe the start of the next chapter? Ah, who cares! I was too busy air-drumming.

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage premieres on VH1, VH1 Classic and Palladia on June 26. It comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on June 29.

WIRED: Tons of old footage and stories for fans to chew on. Fun and entertaining, so girlfriends and newbies will be amused. Intimate and revealing interviews. One rare tune, "Garden Road," shows up near beginning.

TIRED: A bit long and uneven - lots of detail on the early works, but later albums (Presto onward) get breezed over.

Rating: 8 out of 10