Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010)

Canada’s progessive rock band Rush first appeared on my radar in late high school circa 1990-91 during discussions with Australian jazz guitarist Nick Freer and translator Jeremy Breaden.  The first albums I purchased were Rush’s career overview Chronicles (1989), their live album Exit Stage Left (1981),  and the jazz-funk influenced Presto (1989) that was their ‘current’ album at the time. My CD copy of Chronicles soon disappeared from a friend’s locked car at a high school dinner and my interest gradually fell away to a level of appreciation rather than exploring their entire back catalogue.

Rush reappeared circa 1993-94 when Guitar Player Magazine teamed up two bassists/vocalists: Rush’s Geddy Lee and Primus‘ Les Claypool. GP prompted me to ask Primus’ original drummer Tim ‘Herb’ Alexander about Rush drummer Neil Peart during a 1994 interview for La Trobe University’s student newspaper Rabelais. A decade later, I traded Rush anecdotes with musician and web developer Kim Khor, virtual reality exponent Mark Pesce about Ayn Rand‘s influence on 2112 (1975), and with ‘action foresight’ practitioner Jose M. Ramos about the role of keyboards ‘in the mix’ on Moving Pictures (1981). These fans were intense about how Rush had changed their lives.

Several of the above themes also run through Scott McFadyen and Sam Dunn’s informative documentary Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010). Although filled with rare archival footage Beyond The Lighted Stage may appear understated. However, the documentary has a lot of lessons about the ‘micro’ details of how to cultivate group creativity as a power trio; when to make decisions such as changes in musical style and hiring certain producers; and why Rush stayed together in the face of music industry changes, rock critic backlashes, and little mainstream support.

The people who either introduced me to or talked with me about Rush fell into two groups. The first were a bunch of high school musicians who appreciated Lee, Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson for their craft, influence on others, and tried learning some of their songs. McFadyen and Dunn feature a range of musicians on these nuances including Claypool, comedian Jack Black, Sebastian Bach, Trent Reznor, Vinnie Paul, and members of Tool and Rage Against The Machine. The second group were ‘working class’ intelligentsia who in Ramos’ case played college festivals on bass. Mine was a third group: Montessori-trained would-be musicians who quickly gravitated to student journalism and the fringes of artist and repertoire management.

Lee, Peart and original drummer John Rutsey were too busy jamming and playing high school dances in Toronto to finish high school or to go to university. Instead, Rush’s early career benefited from the Darwinian ‘selection pressures’ that are missing from most career histories yet that McFadyen and Dunn capture. Changes to Toronto’s alcohol laws enabled Rush to graduate from high school dances to a now-thriving bar scene. Band management self-funded Rush’s first album (1974) that gained cross-border promotion in Cleveland, Ohio. A combination of harsh touring and increasingly conceptual lyrics on Fly By Night (1975) and Caress of Steel (1975) led to internal battles with their label and producers over Rush’s direction and commercial potential.

Rush describe 2112 (1976) as an ‘all or nothing’ gamble on their own terms.

McFadyen and Dunn’s interviews capture several ‘decision points’ that changed Rush’s career trajectory and musical style. Influenced by Genesis and King Crimson, the band members spent months recording Hemispheres (1978) and honing their ability to play ‘La Villa Strangiato’ live, carefully building up the atmospheric dynamics and pace around Lifeson’s guitar solo. Rush then shifted into the New Wave-oriented Permanent Waves (1980): the transition into a mid-career period first modelled on Talking Heads and The Police, and then on experimentation with keyboard synthesisers, electronic drums, fretless bass, and dense, richly layered effects and soundscapes. Moving Pictures (1981) simultaneously gave Rush widespread radio airplay for their single ‘Tom Sawyer’ and created friction amongst older fans who preferred the more rock direction of earlier material. Although their mainstream fame was fleeting it continues to affect the band members in different ways: Lee and Lifeson are happy to do after-show ‘meet-and-greets’ whilst Peart is more private.

The final third of McFadyen and Dunn’s documentary enables Rush to explain various issues on their own terms. Lee, Lifeson and Peart talk candidly about their truly mid-career period on albums from Signals (1982) to Presto (1989): studio experimentation, flirtation with ‘high concept’ MTV music videos, and the role of producers such as Peter Collins and Rupert Hine. Musicians and fans give their own, sometimes divergent views about how this material has aged. The section dealing with Peart’s ‘Ghost Rider’ period and Rush’s five year hiatus is almost a mini-film on dealing with grief, personal loss and the care taken to ensure that personal relationships do not become frayed during a liminal period. Rush’s return with Vapor Trails (2002) and Snakes & Arrows (2007) are in part because Lee and Lifeson gave Peart the time and space needed to work through these issues, confronted the possibility of the band’s demise, and only later took a ‘graduated’ and step-wise process to Rush’s return to public view.

Several questions are posed throughout the documentary’s interviews and overarching narrative. How did the musicians gain ‘personal mastery’ of their craft? Why did Peart’s intellectual and humanitarian concerns resonate with a broader fan-base? How did Lifeson deal with keyboard synthesisers that drenched out his soaring guitar solos? How did Rush deal with fame and yet also with snide reviews from rock critics? Why did they select certain producers for specific albums? Why did some fans’ interest wane and others stayed loyal? Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage offers some tentative answers to these questions. In doing so McFadyen and Dunn have done more than profile one of their favourite bands: they offer a ‘career guide’ to emerging musicians and music industry people about how to achieve longevity on your own terms and in an industry known for its short attention span.