“When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors”
“Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage”
Most rock-music documentaries don't reflect as much directorial vision or insight as they do band-approved fan worship. Two recent films about classic rock groups have received attention and critical acclaim although they take much different approaches.
The '60s rock group the Doors have sold 70 million records and continue at a pace of around a million a year, so there was clearly something in their music besides the tired legend of substance-betrothed frontman Jim Morrison. Unfortunately this documentary by Tom DiCillo (“Living in Oblivion”) does little to remedy that misconception. There are no interviews or new revelations; instead we get a visual recounting of Mr. Mojo Risin's overnight stumble to stardom with rare private footage and voice-over narration delivered with cheese-ball earnestness by actor Johnny Depp, who clearly needs to take a break from children's films. This stuff has all been told before through other movies and books, making the effort feel like a glorified “Behind the Music” rehash. The only draw for fans is the grainy historic footage — the rest is just rock idolatry as Morrison loses himself to his drunken onstage persona and teeters on the brink of a nervous breakdown by age 25, while the hippie counterculture eats itself. Gems shine brightest in the background: a weary onstage glimpse from guitarist Robbie Krieger to his bandmates says more in one candid second than 30 minutes of overheated “Doors for Dummies” narration.
A tighter, more informative film for a much longer-lasting band, “Beyond the Lighted Stage,” explores the 40-year history of Canadian power rock trio Rush. Thinking-man's muscle rock, geeked-out Gandalf jams, “snip-and-fix-it time at the kennel” — no matter what you think of this consistently unhip band, you can't come away from this documentary without respecting its members' work ethic, loyalty to their (almost exclusively male) fan base and camaraderie as lifelong friends.
Filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyn (“Metal: A Headbanger's Journey”) create a relaxed, intimate picture by balancing a trove of archival materials with interviews featuring the band members, their families (singer Geddy Lee's parents were Holocaust survivors) and current artists influenced by the group. These include people as varied as Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan and glassy-eyed comedian Jack Black, who provides much-needed comic relief with his facial expressions alone. Corgan (who was recently seen shopping in Plan 9) is especially reverent when noting that Rush will be recognized as one of the great “people's rock bands” that has remained devoted to its overly earnest musical vision, even when sporting kimonos and Fu Manchu 'staches. The film benefits from a well-paced story arc: The band risks early failure as high-school dropouts, opens for Kiss and fails to get laid, scores at the last moment with a label-defying space concept album (“2112”), then experiences late career tragedy when drummer Neil Peart loses his daughter to a car accident and his wife to cancer 10 months later, sending him on a solo 55,000-mile motorcycle trek.
The band members come across as appreciative of their lives — friendly music geeks that made good and are somehow still rocking across fist-pumping seas of winged mullets. “Beyond the Lighted Stage” is a good companion piece to “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” the acclaimed documentary on another Canadian band that had a much tougher road.