Longtime fans of the Canadian rock group Rush may sometimes get annoyed by the fact that however long one has been following the band, the trio of musicians tend to be so cagey and secretive, we rarely learn much about them outside of their music.
Fortunately, the band whose work has been a favorite among musicians while at the same time being misunderstood by the mainstream public for decades, are the subject of a new documentary called Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage courtesy of Scott McFadyen and Sam Dunn, the filmmakers behind Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and the Iron Maiden concert movie Iron Maiden: Flight 666.
While it may be a fairly straightforward and linear examination of the band’s music and history since their formation in 1971, what longtime Rush fans will really thrill to is the amount of footage and interviews talking about their early days before they exploded with 1981’s “Moving Pictures,” including the times around their third album “Caress of Steel” when everyone thought the band’s career was over.
We first saw thrilling rock doc at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it also won the festival’s coveted Heineken Audience Award, and after a brief theatrical release, the movie is finally available on a jam-packed DVD and Blu-ray today.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the two directors back at Tribeca.
ComingSoon.net: I think a lot of people are surprised that no one has made a movie at this level about Rush before, so how did this come about? Did you approach them or did they talk to you about it? How did you get started on this?
Sam Dunn: We met Geddy when we made our first film “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” and that was back in 2004, and it’s a good thing he liked what we did in our first film and fast forward a couple years later, we were talking with the band about the possibility of doing a documentary with them. Scot had been talking with Peggy, their management, and we flew down to Houston. They were playing a show on the “Snakes and Arrows” tour, we flew down there and met with them backstage and sort of presented the idea of doing this documentary with them and their words of warning to us were, “Well, we’re pretty boring, so we don’t know why you would want to make a film about this.” I guess we said, “Well, we don’t think so and we think there’s a lot of people out there that would agree.” I guess they trusted us, which is great, to tell the story of their band, because they don’t really let people into the Rush family very easily.
Scot McFadyen: Actually, Neil asked me, “So what’s the story? What’s your angle, how are you going to tell it?” and we were like, “We don’t really know yet. We haven’t done the interviews. The story will develop but we’ll put in the work” and he liked that. As a writer, too, he recognized that you don’t always know how it’s going to turn out.
CS: So how did you start out? Did you start by interviewing them or go through all the footage you had available and figure out what you need?
McFadyen: It’s a combo of a bit of doing some preliminary interviews with them and then a lot of research to find out who were the people… it’s such a long history to begin with so there was a lot of research. We have a guy named Martin Popoff, who works for ushe’s written a book on Rush and he’s a great researcher. We just had that and we started to do interviews with them once in a while, then go away, find the archival footage, do more interviews. It took us a couple years to finish.
CS: You started this in 2008?
Dunn: We actually started in late 2007, that’s when we started doing the interviews with the band members. We knew that really at the end of the day, it was going to be Geddy, Alex and Neil that tell the story of the band, and then the musicians and the fans of the band that we wanted to talk to would just help speak to their legacy and the impact that they’ve had on people’s lives. ‘Cause we knew that we wanted to tell the history of the band, but we also wanted to try and capture why it is that they’ve become such a massive phenomenon with fans and have had such longevity. So it was kind of a combination of trying to tell a history through the band themselves and then trying to do something a little bit bigger than that with other people.
CS: At that point, they had already gotten back together after their hiatus, right? Because you do have footage of Neil driving his motorcycle across country, which I guess was done afterwards?
McFadyen: We wanted to touch on Neil’s tragedy but it’s very difficult to go into. We very much wanted to go into it with how Neil got into it, not what happened but how did he come out of that period and how it affected the band. We didn’t want to be sensationalistic about what is a pretty horrible thing.
CS: At the beginning, you have testimonials from musicians who kind of nail the realities of what an anomaly Rush is because musicians really love their music, and they’ve gone through these periods where they have these die-hard fans who stuck with them and are seeing them well into their 40s and 50s. Did you ever get the band’s thoughts on why they think that is or do they not really think about that and just want to continue playing music?
Dunn: When Geddy and Alex saw an early cut of the film with us, they were like “We think there’s too much of us.” I think they’re very genuinely kind of humble and modest guys, and I think in fact they were really interested to hear from all these different musicians about how their music had impacted them. That’s something we were really struck by was the variety of musicians that had been influenced by Rush’s music is really really huge, everybody from Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) to Kirk Hammett (Metallica). These bands sound nothing like Rush but there’s something about the music, the way they’ve approached their career, their attitudes and their humility that I think is really inspiring for a lot of musicians. I think that’s what we were interested in; I think Geddy and Alex were pretty interested in that as well.
CS: I may be mistaken but there doesn’t seem that much of Geddy in there and it seemed like there was more of Alex and Neil in the interviews. Is that by choice? Maybe I’m wrong.
McFadyen: I don’t know. It’s like when you have a soccer game and then at the end, you have the percentage of who had the ball… I think Neil was more near the end and Geddy was more near the beginning, but we never actually timed (each section). We always found that Geddy was very good with moving a story point forward. He had a really good concept of how things were, so he was always great narration to move things forward.
CS: How much did you guys know about the band before researching this? I was a big fan of the band maybe 20 years ago, but there was so much stuff that I never knew about, and I think some stuff that was just never out there. How did they work with you to get this footage and information from their early years, access to their families, etc.?
McFadyen: It was just an intense amount of research and time (laugh). We knew some. I grew up in Toronto and my brother had “Rush” stenciled on his wall in 1974, and part of your existence growing up in Toronto and then in the ’80s, and I kind of lost touch for a while until picking this project back up.
Dunn: I think our awareness of the band sort of mirrored a lot of fans’ awareness of the band in the sense that in their sort of ascent in the ’70s and the ’80s, certainly as a fan of Rush, I was very familiar with and they’re more recent records. The real blindspots I think were their youth and their high school years, because we didn’t really know much about that. That was one thing we got really interested in was, “Well, where did these guys actually come from?” And then the ’80s, that was a real fork in the road for a lot of fans, the mid-80s when the band started to incorporate more keyboards and more technological elements into their music, as a fan I kind of stopped listening to them. I had a bit of a built-in prejudice about that. It was like, okay, it wasn’t really interesting to me as a fan, but as a filmmaker, we were forced to say, “Okay, what happened in this band’s career?” I think it was the moment in the band’s career were they got the closest to any real conflict between Geddy and the Alex because of the role of the keyboards were becoming more and more prominent in the music. But in the long run, we were more struck by how well they communicate and how much glue there is between them that really holds them together.
CS: I gotta say, that a band that’s been together for nearly thirty years with the same line-up is pretty incredible, even unheard of, in any day and age.
McFadyen: We can’t think of another band that’s actually been together as long with the same line-up. I can’t think of another band.
Dunn: There have been bands that have been around longer or just as long but they don’t have the same members. The Rolling Stones have different members and so on and so on, so it’s quite remarkable how they managed to stick it out.
CS: I’m sure you’re going to get asked this a lot, but Alex’s arrest was fairly recent, maybe that was during the hiatus period. Was there any reason why you didn’t include that or even mention it? Was there some legal reasons?
McFadyen: It just felt like when you stand back and you have two hours to tell a story of a band that has 24 albums, that wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Alex said, “Do you want to talk about that?” and I was like, “Not really.” I can’t imagine how that story point would even have an opportunity to develop and see it’s way through within the scope of what we had to tell.
CS: I figured that once you got to the tragedy in Neil’s life, that would have been the time to get into that, but he offered and you didn’t think it was important?
McFadyen: We just said we didn’t think it was worth pursuing.
CS: I also wanted to ask you about when the band appeared in “I Love You, Man” also during that same period, and I was kind of surprised you didn’t mention that or include it. Did you have trouble getting that footage from Paramount to include in it?
McFadyen: Personally, I didn’t really like that movie, but I guess we could have went further to include that, but I dunno.
Dunn: I think at the end of the day we were just bigger fans of the “South Park” clip and the Stephen Colbert moment in terms of Rush’s real first foray into mass popular culture, this is really the first time that it’s happening in any major way. I mean, they were big in the ’70s and the ’80s but they weren’t really part of the mainstream story. I think with the “Colbert Report,” it’s an undeniably brilliant moment for TV. We still tear up and laugh when we see it, but in the big picture, “I Love You, Man” I don’t think was really as good a characterization of Rush.
CS: But I dunno, I thought that movie was even better because Rush was in it.
McFadyen: That was the best part.
CS: They seem even more of a hidden secret, especially now, because there’s been such a big gap since “Moving Pictures.” There’s all these fans who love them but they don’t go out and form a Rush cover band, like they used to have back in their heyday.
McFadyen: That’s what Sam was saying that they’re all these bands that were influenced by them that don’t sound anything like them, but they still hold a place in their heart.
CS: Right, but people don’t even talk about them that much. Before this movie, I don’t remember the last time someone has brought them up in a conversation, and you wouldn’t unless you’re a Rush fan and you meet another one.
McFadyen: Yeah, I know. It’s sort of like a fraternity. But I think musicians more and more are coming out of that Rush closet…
Dunn: I think the quote from Les Claypool in the film is so great because he says, “In one fell swoop, the moment on Stephen Colbert, was a giant F.U. to everybody who ever said that Rush wasn’t cool. Because for fans of Rush, we always thought they were cool.” It took that long for the stamp of approval to be put on Rush, and I think it was a moment of vindication for a lot of Rush fans. I think Les captured it really well for us.
CS: Where do you guys go from here? Do you have other bands you want to make a larger movie about?
McFadyen: I don’t know. We’re doing a TV series for VH-1 based on our first movie, “Metal Evolution” it’s called, it’s about the evolution of hard and heavy music going right back to blues and how the guitar sound started to change, taking it all the way up to thrash and glam. Each episode is based on a different sub-genre of heavy metal. It’s 8 hours for the first season and probably another 8 hours for the next year or two. So that’s taking up a lot of time. We’re doing some live DVDs for bands. We’re doing Iron Maiden’s next live DVD. So I dunno, there’s a bunch of stuff. And then I’m going to direct a narrative.
CS: I was wondering if you guys were getting sick of metal at this point or at least making movies about it. Besides Penelope Spheeris, there haven’t been many filmmakers who have focused so heavily on one type of music for so long.
Dunn: Definitely. I think certainly speaking personally, I’ve got a passion for documentary and I think there’s opportunities to branch out to other areas of interest. I think what we found with metal was… we often get asked that question and it’s like really, no one else has done it, and metal and hard rock is a massive phenomenon and part of our culture. In some ways, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s question of how much metal can we really handle.
McFadyen: Also Rush was a bit of a departure, because the more you look into it, they really were briefly a metal band and they have a hardness to them, but they’re so diverse and interesting, so that was a departure for sure.
CS: Well, if you’re going to spend years working on a movie, it might as well be a subject you love like music.
Dunn: Could be reality TV.
McFadyen: That would be a lot worse.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is out on DVD and Blu-ray today, June 29.