Hot Docs: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage Review

Rush

While I wouldn’t call myself a Rush fan, the importance of their music isn’t totally lost on me. Being Canadian — and from St.Catharines, childhood home of Rush drummer Neil Peart — every other person I know claims to have some sort of personal connection to a member of the band. National pride aside, Rush has never really spoken to me on a musical level, and I’m certainly not alone in that regard. They’re definitely an acquired taste. Director Sam Dunn examines the loyal fan base the band has accrued over the years, takes us through the history of their music and tries to figure out why such a prolific and influential band has been shunned by critics and music historians.

First off, Sam Dunn is one thorough dude. His previous films, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal (I haven’t seen Iron Maiden: Flight 666) are definitive visual guides to the Heavy Metal universe and its many sub-genres. The information is presented in a glossy, easily digestible package that plays like a heavy metal record store employee training video. Dunn’s anthropological background has provided an interesting perspective on the subject matter of his films, but things can feel a little didactic at times. While Beyond the Lighted Stage’s approach to the history of Rush is similarly dense, the film benefits from some great character moments and a classically structured narrative. From the band member’s experiences growing up to present day, Dunn leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to educate us on the story of Rush.

Typically a film that dedicates itself to the cultural relevance of a world-renowned rock band would likely be set in cities like New York City or Liverpool, but Rush are Canadian boys. This means we get rare archival footage of 1970’s downtown Toronto; an unusual setting that played well at the Hot Docs Toronto premiere, but be lost on anyone outside of Souther Ontario. There’s even video footage of Rush playing at my old high school in St.Catharines, Ontario! I guess it’s just refreshing to see a band that doesn’t come from the typical and tired cultural hotbeds that we’re used to seeing on screen. I also really enjoyed the dynamics of the band. Geddy Lee (bass, lead vocals) and Alex Lifeson (lead guitar) are childhood friends who share the same goofy sense of humour. Meanwhile, Neil Peart (drums) was a late addition to the band and some 36 years later is still known as ‘the new guy’. He’s the quite, introverted one who isn’t very comfortable with the idea of being famous. Through all of the ups and downs over the years, we get a real sense of the genuine friendship shared amongst the band.

One thing I typically find annoying about rock biopics is the talking head segments in which some Rolling Stone critic is brought in to contextualize the popularity and musical relevance of the subjects. It always seems so insincere and the interviews are lifeless excuses for cliche’d sound bites. Luckily, Dunn decides to focus on fellow musicians and celebrities that have been, in some way, inspired by Rush. You’ve got Sebastian Bach, Jack Black, Billy Corgan, Gene Simmons, Matt Stone, the bassist guy from Rage Against the Machine…the list goes on. It’s much more interesting watching these guys — Jack Black and Sebastian Bach in particular — geek out on why they love Rush rather than some stuffy, self-important music critic. Maybe these interviews were entertaining because of the fact that Rush are looked at as a somewhat nerdy band. While there’s much talk of the technical craftsmanship behind the albums, there’s also a lot of discussion of the quirks attributed to their music. Geddy Lee’s voice, their atypical looks and lack of fashion sense; could this have contributed to the lack of respect from critics?

I guess my only complaint about the film was the 106 minute run time felt a little long. Again, Sam Dunn is one thorough dude! He does raise some good points about the cultural relevance of Rush and their dismissal by mainstream music critics, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage changed my opinion on the band’s musical output. I still don’t own any of their albums and I still think Neil Peart’s drum kit is obnoxious. Having said that, I do think they’ve influenced a number of great musicians and they certainly deserve a place in the rock and roll hall of fame (for whatever that’s worth).

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