Let’s face it, it’s hard to bottle lightning. Rock docs, whether they’re concerts or biopics or even music videos, succeed when the veil is lifted and performers face their own vulnerability. Because this is a state of being for Rush, the films about them, even non-descript concert videos, are generally quite good. This list is really a starter for myself, and I share it in hopes that in the comments below our readers will add other favorites.
1. La Villa Strangiato at PinkPop, 1979. Smoking. This is Rush live in the 1970s at their very best. Thank the prog gods someone had the presence of mind to film it. La Villa Strangiato is one of their most popular pieces, but the band attributes the complexity of it and the album from which it came, Hemispheres, to their shift toward shorter pieces as the 70s turned into the 80s. This appears to be the only clip from the show, although the entire concert is available as audio on YouTube as well.
2. Beyond the Lighted Stage. Beyond the Lighted Stage is a successful long-form band documentary, a rarity in rock, which as a performance art often fares better in conceptualized concert films. The film benefits from the full participation of its main actors, a well-selected and articulate supporting cast of fellow musicians, family and fans, and most importantly a directness and honesty that neither discounts nor over-rates Rush’s place in popular music. Of course it’s no surprise given the band’s history and its members’ personalities that such a project should work, but when Geddy Lee announces at the end of the film that he warned the production crew, “Don’t be surprised when you discover how boring we really are,” the takeaway is two-fold. First, many rock docs manage to show little beyond how mundane the rest of a rocker’s life is, as we find that most great musicians are successful by virtue of their absorption in their art and have little to say outside of it; second, that the depth of their integrity as an artistic entity and the basic good-guyness of each of the members of Rush as individuals — nothing more, nothing less, as they would tell you — sets them apart, and compared to many of their peers in the rock world makes them truly unique.
3. Classic Albums: 2112 and Moving Pictures, 2010. The Classic Albums series, first broadcast on VH1 umpteen years ago with hour-long profiles of albums by the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac, remains a marvelous program dedicated to the dissection of key albums in rock history. I never saw one that didn’t have something to add to what I knew about an album already. The series turns its eye to not one but two of Rush’s records, and runs almost two hours. Made around the same time as Beyond the Lighted Stage, it amplifies the details of Rush’s most famous albums. While much of the story of these records is known, it’s refreshing to see Rush sitting at the mixing board with producer Terry Brown, talking about how the tracks were actually laid down.
4. The Colbert Report, 2008. I think many fans value this appearance by Rush on the Colbert Report as a recognition that those of us who love Rush will not be denied. Colbert gets it, in the same way he has the measure of the rest of American culture. Although marginalized by the music press, Rush was never a cult band — their album sales and sold-out concerts put the lie to that idea. What is maddening is the casual dismissal of the band by hipster rock journalists and others who just don’t get it. Not getting it is cool — in fact, few Rush fans get into all of Rush’s records (there are, after all, many sides to this band) — but given their substantial influence there was something more than a little insidious in their barring from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 14 years. As Colbert comments in his inimitable way, “That’s bullshit.”
5. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech, 2013. Equal parts grace, joy, and humor, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better set of speeches accepting the rock and roll honor of honors. Lifeson’s now infamous, hilarious “Blah blah” performance underscores what both Peart and Lee are getting at, that for an award that wasn’t supposed to mean so much to them, it actually meant a lot.
6. Xanadu, Exit Stage Left, 1981. Rush have been documenting their live shows every few years, starting in 1976 with All the World’s a Stage. I’m including this version of Xanadu because, beyond being among my favorite Rush songs, it captures the vibe of a Rush show and was recorded for the film in a less than polished manner, so really has a live grit to it. This is full on double-neck splendor.
7. Come On Children. Google around and you’ll find various clips of this Allan King documentary, released in 1972 and featuring a 17-year-old Alex Lifeson. Documenting a fabricated months-long social experiment, in which teenagers are sent out to live on a “farm” without any adults, Come On Children is certainly a product of its era, and while now more associated with Lifeson and his renown, the film very effectively provides a window into the larger environment from which Rush emerged.
8. Halo Effect, Dallas, 2012. There are worse things in rock than the modern concert video — the swoopingly overwrought crane shots, vast stages, the polished cosmeticism — but I can’t think of many. The bland emotional impact is rarely rewarding. I’m including this performance from Dallas from 2012 because even though it suffers from some of those problems, it shows what a great live band Rush still is as well as the maturity of songwriting on “Halo Effect,” from Clockwork Angels. It’s a beautiful song, full of love and regret, a personal song, and not typically Rush even though Peart is writing in a typical mode for him, through an invented first person. Hearing Geddy Lee singing in a register fitting the new songs is nice, since a lot of the older material finds him straining these days (no discredit to him, mind, those songs are age challenging). Alex Lifeson’s intro, not on the studio version, is masterful, an overture that touches on the themes in the song without being just the song, and is redolent of Jimmy Page’s live electro-drone folk outings with Led Zeppelin.