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DVD Review: Rush - Beyond The Lighted Stage

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For a band that’s been filling arenas for thirty years, a proper Rush documentary has been a long time coming. Blame it on the band’s supposed lack of “general appeal”. Adored by intellectual heshers and aspiring shredmeisters, reviled by professional journalists and ignored by the rock mainstream, you have to admit: they did it their way. Somehow, three brainy, unprepossessing, somewhat geeky Canadians with an intact sense of humor managed to become, as bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee puts it, “the most popular cult band in the world.” Even a non-fan like my friend Richard, who claims never to have heard one of their songs in its entirety, was still able to look at the cover of this DVD and say, “That guy has a really high voice, that guy uses a lot of chorus on his guitar and that guy’s a really good drummer.” They don’t lack mainstream awareness, just mainstream appreciation. But Beyond The Lighted Stage puts them into a context where hopefully even those left cold by 15/8 time signatures can appreciate them as artists, unconventional, unwavering in their conviction.

Director Sam Dunn has proven himself to be a talented chronicler of the dark arts in his previous film Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, treating that primordial urge for rock and roll satisfaction as a serious topic worthy of investigation. It proves to be a perfect approach to these high-concept chophounds. Dunn can be incredibly detail-oriented on an area of particular interest, but is also able to skim quickly through the band’s less important chapters in the interest of keeping the onscreen action - mostly consisting of dudes blabbing about rock music - compelling and forward-moving.

Like that other popular rock-doc of recent years told in Toronto accents, a big part of the story here is the friendship between these guys. You sense a genuine warmth in the way they goof around with each other even today; a meeting to discuss the “future direction of the band” degenerates into an SCTV sketch by around the fourth bottle of wine, as they ponder a concept album based on the life of Dr. Frankenstein. And there’s also a sincere affection in the fan testimonials. Sebastian Bach confesses running out to buy “The Fountainhead” when he was twelve years old as a result of 2112’s Rand-inspired lyrics, marvelling “Damn, this rock band’s getting me all into literature!” Billy Corgan tells a story about sitting his mother down to listen to “Entre Nous” during a rare moment that he could get her attention. It’s a moment that will have a lot of resonance with other dudes who found themselves emotionally withdrawn at a young age, having a hard time communicating but able to respond to music that spoke their language.

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Their audience, interviewed at length in one of the bonus segments, is thick with this kind of person. They’re a little funny to watch, but ultimately, what Rush represents to them, particularly the musicians in the bunch, is not just a good time, but the potential for human achievement. Rush weren’t otherworldly like Led Zeppelin; they were down to earth guys doing something that it seemed like you could also possibly do if you spent enough time in your bedroom practicing parts. Thus they inspired a few generations of aspiring players to test their own limits. Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy describes covering their songs as something of a dare among young hotshots: “Sure, I can play ‘YYZ’ but can you play ‘La Villa Strangiato’???...it’s the high-water mark of rock drumming.”

And they were models of anti-corporate cool a good fifteen years before Cobain. Ignored by radio during the late seventies, they responded to record label pressure for hit singles with the epic 2112, a concept album with a twenty-minute title piece. “We were ready go back to the farm machinery shop rather than make the kind of record they wanted us to make,” says guitarist Alex Lifeson. “At least we’ll go out in a blaze of glory.” Instead it put them over the top and bought them their freedom from outside interference. By sticking to their guns, they became more focused, and in turn more successful than ever. That’s a very inspiring story to anybody who still “likes to believe in the freedom of music.”

DVD extras include a handful of very watchable deleted or extended scenes, and complete versions of half a dozen songs, including several with original drummer John Rutsey from local TV from before the time of their first album, along with more recent clips, including a breathtaking rip through “YYZ” from their 2008 tour, that show them to have lost none of the old mastery or momentum. While the music remains an acquired taste, the band members' intelligence and wit makes this an engrossing trip even for the un-converted.

Rush appear at the Gibson Amphitheater on Wednesday, August 11 and Verizon Wireless Ampthitheater on Friday,August 13. The band will perform the album Moving Pictures in its entirety.