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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

California Dreaming on the Psychoanalytic Couch: A Review of When You’re Strange; A Film About The Doors, directed by Tom Dicillo (2009)




Images: film poster; portrait of Jim Morrison from the website Simply Art Online, published by Michael Arnold





I can still see the long line of people in the mall. Each has in hand a ticket to Oliver Stone’s new film The Doors.

The year is 1991. The Doors and the counter-culture they represent are experiencing a cross-generational revival. Some attribute the trend to the optimism that follows the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Every student of consequence at my suburban high school, or so I think at the time, is standing in line. Some, like myself, are devote fans of the American rock band, which released six albums between 1967 to 1971 and recorded many of the period’s best popular songs (“Light My Fire”). Others attend out of respect. Still others are merely curios. All hope to walk home with some deeper insight into the dilemma of growing up absurd - as Paul Goodman once put the matter - in a stale suburb.

My passion for The Doors was born one cold autumn night in the Canadian suburb of Burlington, Ontario. I was walking home with a friend, aged sixteen and well past curfew. Along the way he got me listen to a tape of The Doors. The first song I listened to, with its dissonant notation and macabre narrative, was “Not to Touch the Earth”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_-HqcNum7M.
Raised a strict Baptist, I'd never heard such sinister music before: “Some outlaws lived by the side of a lake," Morrison intoned, "The minister’s daughter’s in love with the snake, who lives in a well by the side of a road, wake up, girl, we’re almost home!”

To my surprise I found myself hopelessly attracted to this rather disturbing music.
Within a week of hearing "Not to Touch the Earth," I’d viewed Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a film of a 1968 Doors concert. I'd also purchased The Best of The Doors on tape from a head-shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street.

Historical documentaries sometimes suffer from an obvious necessity: digging up enough original film or photographic material to fill an hour or more of program time. Many a mediocre documentary hangs its prospects on a narrow collection of photos and film sequences. Not so in the case of Tom Dicillo's When You’re Strange: 
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1333667/Textured and personal, The Doors visual archive includes even film sequences shot by Jim Morrison, the band's lead singer. Dicillo's preference for moving pictures invests the film with a welcome lyricism. As a result, the film communicates in depth without feeling overworked or cluttered.

Though lyrical, the film unfailingly reconstructs the key turning points in the history of The Doors. It achieves this in one sense by adding a narrator, voiced by Johnny Depp, whose running commentary situates the viewer in the context of late 1960s America. Depp's narrator also offers authoritative insights into Morrison’s psyche and personality.

One thing a friend of mine told me after we'd seen the show was how much she appreciated being exposed by the film to the history and politics of the counter-culture era. Though in her late twenties, she could not recall seeing the footage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, which the film cites toward its conclusion, before. Her high school history courses stopped abruptly at the end of the Second World War. Her experience reinforced for me the necessity of continuing to tell the stories of the 1960s for future generations.


D
icillo's film has another great strength: it effectively documents Morrison's troubled personality and often sinister stage presence. It quickly becomes clear when Morrison's wild and at times obscene stage antics result from inspiration as opposed to substance abuse. Moments when his antics register as shamanic invocations or acts of great theatre shock the viewer or audience into considering at an emotional or visceral level the extent to which contemporary society forces healthy human impulses down into the soul's underground. Morrison's posthumously published poem “An American Prayer" expresses this point poignantly:


Do you know the warm progress under the stars?
Do you know we exist?
Have you forgotten the keys to the kingdom?
Have you been born yet
and are you alive?


Still, like many documentaries, When You're Strange picks up too many ideas only to put them down again without adequate comment; the film tracks the development of key themes and ideas in The Door's music, but only superficially. As well, Morrison's celebrity ends up the central focus of a film that otherwise purports to document the story of a band.


It's been twenty years since I stood in line waiting to see Stone's The Doors. I wouldn't call myself a passionate fan of the band any more, but I still respect its accomplishments as an avante guard band and believe the band remains culturally and historically significant. Few bands captured the zeitgeist of their era as well as The Doors. Morrison's narcissism, chauvinism, and self-destructiveness now seem tragic, if not farcical at times. Yet the band approached the world and the human condition in the venerable spirit of the Romantic tradition. At worst, Morrison stands, as one recent writer has put it, as the last Holy Fool, and Holy Fools, as history attests, deserve a hearing.