Saturday, June 19, 2010

Virtuosos of Rock: A Review of Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010, 107 Min.), directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen
















Images: film poster (top); Rush, Toronto, mid-1970s (below)

For a Canadian like myself, there is some fascination in going to the local cinema to see a documentary film about a Canadian band whose three members hail from Willowdale, Ontario, a dull, non-descript Toronto suburb, and Hagersville, Ontario, otherwise famous for a tire fire. The band in question is Rush and has been based around the talents of the same three men since 1974: Geddy Lee on bass guitar, keyboards and lead vocals; Alex Lifeson on guitar; and Neil Peart on drums and percussion. Arguably Canada’s most commercially successful and best-known band of the past forty years, both at home and abroad, Rush also has the distinction of running afoul of critical opinion.

Enter Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, the new documentary by San Dunn and Scot McFadyen, which seems to be doing double duty: to please Rush’s legion of loyal long-time fans, on the one hand, while attempting to bring critics and new fans on side, on the other (http://www.rushbeyondthelightedstage.com/).

How successful is the film in achieving these aims? Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is indeed a disarming film that makes for good viewing. This is partly because it utilizes a straightforward format, including a mix of chronological and thematic analysis. It also successfully humanises Lee, Lifeson and Peart. The portrait of Peart that emerges is especially personal. This is ironic, given his reputation for unsociable behaviour. This is also apt though, as Peart has been Rush’s principal lyricist – the band’s ideas man - for most of its existence. The twin tragedies Peart faced in the late 1990s, the deaths of his daughter and wife, are handled subtly and with dignity. And who can deny the film’s good-natured humour, invoked by the directors at just those moments when the program seems to be loosing steam?

Ultimately though, the film seems as much about artistic integrity as about Rush. The band is presented as the type of the defiant artist: unbending in the face of market dictates, faithful to its vision to the end. As Katherine Monk put the matter in the Vancouver Sun: "The boys are rendered as musical saints who were martyred on the industry cross for their beliefs." In this there is something of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a work referenced directly in Rush's early work, a 1943 novel about an architect who remains true to his highest principles in the face of persecution and against all odds. The idea that Rush swam against the commercial stream is dubious though, and amounts to a romanticization of the band. It would be more accurate to say it remained in dialogue with the larger culture, embracing the synthesizer in the 1980s, for instance, as both a choice and as an affirmative nod in the direction of New Wave. Moreover, like so many other artists who got their big break in the 1970s – Neil Young comes to mind - Rush sought a synthesis of its previous styles in the 1990s. Essentially, the band rode the same waves as the rest of the music business, they just continued to surf in their own eccentric direction.

In addition to romanticizing Rush, Dunn and McFayden’s film fails to illuminate the process by which Lee, Lifeson and Peart advanced their musical abilities so fully and so early without apparent tutelage or extended apprenticeship. Leaving these details out feeds a related myth: that of the three boys with extraordinary ‘natural talent.' No doubt all three were largely natural musicians. Yet the viewer senses something has been left out. Surely Rush had teachers and mentors?
The film also arguably fails to penetrate the dense web of morphing ideas that fill Rush’s records. True, a number of the band's key ideas and more provocative lyrics are highlighted, but mostly in a spirit of curiosity or mute credulity. Even when the film allows avid fans to speak directly to the music, the results are mediocre: Rush’s music may be about the alienation of the individual from society, but if so the band is merely retelling the perennial story of rock and roll to a syncopated beat.

My own sense is that Rush is, first and foremost, a virtuoso band, a fact that renders them an immediate oddity, as virtuosos normally steer clear of rock and roll. This fact distinguishes Rush from most rock bands active today, with the exception of a handful of long standing progressive rock cousins. Some will argue Rush is an ideas band, or that their music is emotionally satisfying. I, however, cannot agree on these points, as it seems to me their music lacks warmth, soul, feel, and internal coherence. As Owen Gleiberman has put the matter in Entertainment Weekly: "They're the sound of all rock and no roll." There is something oddly – even eerily – unmusical about the sophisticated music made by Rush. Evocation of feeling and mood are no less a musical skill than the ability to write and perform in multiple time signatures. Two distinct gifts you say? But, then, what is the purpose of music: mere technical proficiency? Only when Rush adopted the economy of Pop in the 1980s, as Sting once described that genre’s central feature, did its music come to life. Yet one could make the case that Rush ceased to be Rush at precisely this moment.

The question as to whether or not Rush’s music has merit may ultimately be a moot point though. After all, they have enjoyed a long career and a consistent cult following that has assured them industry success, if not critical acceptance. Their musical skill is unquestioned, millions upon millions of units have been sold, and thousands of lives reputedly illuminated by their vast catalogue of songs. Indeed, the cinema theatre where I saw the film on opening night was packed to the backseats, if not with eager fans, than with a festive audience more than willing to celebrate Rush’s unusual achievement. Given these factors even a curmudgeonly critic has to ask him or herself if taste really matters in the end? Rock and roll, after all, is a business like any other.
Check out these reviews of Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage as well:

Linda Barnard, "Rush: Documentary Finds Nuance Amid Noise," Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/article/821254--rush-documentary-finds-nuance-amid-noise

Mike Devlin, “Canadian Filmmaking Duo Revels in Rush Job,” Times Colonist:
http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/Canadian+filmmaking+revels+Rush/3135273/story.html

Adam McDowell, “Rush: Sticking to the Formula,” National Post:
http://www.nationalpost.com/arts/movies/Rush+Sticking+formula/3132812/story.html
McDowell on Rush: “Peart’s lyric’s these days explore love, loss and learning. Moving closer to the heart has also taken rush further away from the head. They’re just not that strange anymore, and some fans may quietly feel the magic is fading every year.”

Katherine Monk, “Getting Closer to the Heart,” Vancouver Sun:
http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Getting+closer+heart+Rush/3135389/story.html
Jim Slotek, “‘Rush’ Doc Doesn’t Care for Cool,” Toronto Sun:
http://www.torontosun.com/entertainment/movies/2010/06/09/14322801.html
Jordan Zivitz, “Closer to Their Heart,” Montreal Gazette:
http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Closer+their+heart/3137651/story.html

Owen Gleiberman, film review, Entertainment Weekly: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20392434,00.html

1 comment:

  1. This of you who enjoyed the blog on Rush might want to read a recent article on the alleged resurgence of Prog Rock by Guardian writer Alexis Petridis, "Go Back to go Forward: The Resurgence of Prog Rock," 22 July 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/22/prog-rock-genesis-rush-mostly-autumn

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