Rest in peace, Neil Peart. He was the drummer and lyricist for Rush, a band who enjoyed three decades of fame in the rock world by following their own distinctive muse. They were too intellectual for rock critics but they earned one of the most devoted fanbases in rock fandom by delivering the kind of thematic/musical complexity that inspires obsession in a certain breed of music fan without coming off as self-important. If you become a fan of their work, it’s likely you will remain a fan for life.
That kind of love is reflected in Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, an excellent 2010 documentary by filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen. All three members of the group – Peart, bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson – participate on camera, teaming with the directors to unfurl their history in a disciplined manner (fitting for a band who were known early on for their tidily-arranged epic songs).
Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage shows the viewer how Rush went from a Toronto club band to a recording act on a major American label, how they fought to keep their conceptual ambition intact and the many changes they went through to keep their music interesting for themselves even as they risked fan interest to do so. You also learn a bit about the group’s personal lives, most notably the tragedies that Peart had to overcome late in life and how he dealt with them.
However, the film covers this familiar rock-doc structure with a style that keeps it from drifting into tedium. Key to the film is the way that band members stay likeably self-deprecating no matter what level of their career they are discussing. Indeed, they are quick to give the viewer insight into the misfit teenage years that forged their passion for exploring music in an individualistic manner and are frank about the songs and albums that they’re disappointed with in retrospect. They’re also quick to demystify the rock star life – there’s a fascinating section where they discuss how they worked out their different ways to relate to fans – and their easygoing style is much more relatable than the usual mythmaking.
As one might expect, Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage also includes plentiful commentary from fellow musicians. However, it does not descend to the usual “mutual admiration society” antics you see in such films. For example, Gene Simmons follows up praise for the bands Zeppelin-esque chops by a bemused observation on how the group never took part in Bacchanalian antics back at the motel. It’s interesting to note how the subject of Rush brings out the inner music nerd of its celebrity participants, particularly in a section where they pay tribute to the wonders of Rush’s famously complex instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” or Billy Corgan marveling at how he spent a chunk of his teenage years learning to play “2112” in its entirety. Corgan also offers insightful commentary on how the critics fundamentally misunderstood Rush.
Since Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage is a band-approved documentary, the questioning never gets too difficult: for example, Peart’s early fascination with Ayn Rand as source material for lyrics and why he ultimately drifted away from Rand-inspired themes is never really explored. That said, the band’s lack of pretension in how they present themselves here carries the day here and the film provides a compelling portrait of why their work’s appeal endures. You really see the latter element in a late segment dealing with fans who follow the band: as one man testifies to how he spent his teen years feeling like the protagonist of the Rush song “Subdivisions,” you get a feeling for the deep sense of connection that fuels the group’s ardent fans.