Monday, April 26, 2010

The fine art of saying no: A glorious new Rush documentary

Beyond the Lighted Stage, the new documentary about Rush that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend, is a near-perfect film that answers one simple question: Why is this band different from all other bands? As someone who's loved Rush for going on 15 years, it was thrilling and vindicating to see someone plead their case so lovingly.

Thematically, the doc focuses on the notion that Rush's sustained success throughout four decades boils down to the band's shrewd instinct, both as a trio and as individuals, for knowing when to say no:

*Alex Lifeson saying no to making his parents proud by getting a "real" job

*Neil Peart saying no to suppressing his bookish tendencies in the name of rock & roll, and later to the idea that he ought to make himself unduly available to obsessive fans

*Rush as a whole saying no to debauchery on the road (as no less a debauchery authority than Gene Simmons of Kiss, who toured with Rush in the early days, attests in the film)

*...saying no to the record label's demand for more concise, accessible material after the failure of Caress of Steel (Rush's middle-finger answer? a little album called 21-frickin'-12)

*...saying no to letting the band overwhelm the members' family lives

*...saying no to continuing as an epic-prog band after they'd outgrown that sound in the early '80s

*...saying no to continuing as a keyboard-drenched pop-rock band after they'd outgrown that sound in the late-'80s

*...saying no to hurrying back into working mode after Peart suffered the loss of his daughter and wife in rapid succession in 1997

There are many more examples, but you get the idea. And in case you don't, the film offers a parade of talking-head rock experts to hammer home its theses: Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan (who blew me away with his quiet poise and articulateness), Kirk Hammett, Rage Against the Machine's Tim Commerford, Tool's Danny Carey, Primus's Les Claypool, the aforementioned Simmons, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach (utterly hilarious), Pantera's Vinnie Paul (yes!) and many more, including a hammy but still sincere Jack Black. Counterbalancing these celebs are major behind-the-scenes players (longtime producer Terry Brown, Rush's early label and radio champions Donna Halper and Cliff Burnstein, etc.) as well as each member's loving parents and a few handpicked fans, who offer a crucial perspective re: how Rush speaks to the alienated teen in all of us.

And then there's the footage. Oh, the glorious footage. A vintage version of "Xanadu" (one of my most treasured Rush songs) that gave me chills; Rush's first-album lineup performing in a school auditorium; the band members warming up backstage; Lifeson and Geddy Lee scarfing sandwiches and signing autographs in a restaurant. And tons more gems.

I honestly have no idea how this will play to the non Rush fan. My love of the band is so deeply ingrained that it's impossible for me to take an objective view. (Though a sympathetic yet nonfanatical friend who accompanied me to the screening was riveted.) But I will say that I don't think this film could have been done better and that Rush geeks the world over are going to go wild. I'd enjoyed codirector Sam Dunn's previous feature, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (great metal 101 doc), but this is a much richer, warmer film, a beautifully wrought summation of a truly singular career. And the best part is, it isn't an epitaph. Rush is touring this summer and they've got new material on the way. Bring it on, I say. (Seeing the doc sent me immediately back to 2002's Vapor Trails, which is rapidly ascending the ranks of my favorite Rush albums.)

For more info on Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, check out my TONY colleague Joshua Rothkopf's recent Q&A with Lifeson.


Derek said...

I think you hit the nail on the head about Rush's art saying No in so many ways. Having seen the documentary yesterday, there were other aspects of the band that resonated with me beginning with their blue collar roots and the association it has with Working Man. As I've mentioned in this documentary is a gift to Rush fans. Seeing it is like opening presents on Christmas.

Joshua said...

extremely well-put.

Unknown said...

well said my friend, great review...

Anonymous said...

Exciting news! A quality Rush documentary is long overdue, and I loved Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, so I imagine this will be respectful and thorough.

Your comment that the documentary is about Rush as a band that is different from all other bands is reminiscent of the same question asked about Passover night--fitting, given Geddy Lee's (Gary Lee Weinrib's) background as the son of Polish Jewish immigrants to Canada. A true Rush-geek observeration, I know.

Thanks for the heads up.

Phil Freeman said...

Looking forward to seeing this as soon as it hits DVD. Thanks for the heads-up.