In Search of RUSH Beyond the Lighted Stage, Lighting a Candle for Neal

Hearing of Neal Peart’s death last week, I didn’t know if I was a fan or not, but it made me realize how much connection I had to their music. I’d be subjected to RUSH by coworkers where I was the only women art director among a pool of guys. When the 9-5 crew in the ad agency blew out, the creatives stayed long after. There were killer deadlines, thus opportunity to blast tunes that would release waves of air guitar and drummer moves amid splatterings of creative juices. I dug it. I didn’t know anything else beyond the lead singer’s voice sounding like my co worker’s grandmother.

I see many heartfelt condolences and consequently, I identify with unrelated persons and posts on FB groups, past workplaces, music dens and radio stations such as WNEW-FM, and iconic live performance venues like Capitol Theater that no longer exist. When you watch RUSH Beyond the Lighted Stage, a documentary made in 2010, you will understand how close the trio Alex, Geddy Lee and Neal have been for over four decades and where their musical road less traveled took them. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen, directors and producers of this dynamic rockumentary, did an admirable job. Sight and sound. Heart and soul.

The screening took place at Tribeca Film Festival. Being involved with a musician, I steered towards watching music used in films and the music docs. It was downright amazing. A mid-afternoon screening totally packed the house with mostly males baby-boomer age with their bro friends and teenage sons singing every word, nodding and body snapping to the phrases, air guitars synced to the time changes, foot stomping thundered under my seat. Incredible, I thought, would this turn out at a midnight screening? Yuri and I soon learned that while it was hours away, the line kept getting longer down the Lower Eastside block. I asked a ticket line festival volunteer dressed in a vintage RUSH T-shirt, “How far does the line go?” His response, “to Cleveland.”

The midnight hour did not disappoint. Sitting in balcony seats, I scanned the audience beyond the gilded cage and counted a handful of women tucked here and there amid the testosterone overload. It was a remarkable experience at the time and ten years later, we’re revisiting this film on Netflix. It certainly rekindled a longing for the music that was able to unite and create a loyal fan following unwavered for years and now, generations. The film offers an in-depth look at the RUSH, phenom chronicling the band’s history and road to musical and personal transformation from Canadian high school gyms and church basements to vast arenas around the world. They built their city. The fans came and rocked the night away.

And their appreciation of fans is sincere, expressing it colorfully and with humor as guys in a band. Aside from the obvious Siamese Twin-like bro-friendship between Alex and Geddy Lee, there is deep love and respect for Neal, who they still called “the new guy.” A lot of time was focused on Neal’s philosophical outlook through the decades of lyric-writing, improvement of drumming capabilities with Freddie Gruber, continued experimentation, shyness and tightly maintained privacy. His tragic personal story showed how insurmountable grief can grip their professional family at the time. After five years, 50K motor cycle miles, occasional postcards, and a new life, he came back. Their musical cohesion and camaraderie brought them together again creating masterpieces. They stopped touring in 2015 for a reason.

Similar to our Kubelka moments, Yuri and I discussed this film long into the night amid wine toasts and tokes to RUSH’s remarkable musicianship and longevity. It was the simplicity of a trio and the complexity of instrumental paragons combined with literary themes and chronicles of mythic sagas. They defined the way drummers learned to play. They set the standard for excellence of taking their instruments out to the max and found ways to better themselves. They were influencers and progenitors going far beyond the progressive rock era number three only to the Beatles and the Stones. Yuri notes he may finally think of himself as a fan.

That insurmountable grief resonates again a decade later as the news of Neal Peart’s death from a glioblastoma reaches the masses and irrevocably touches individuals. The same brain cancer that took my mother twenty-two years ago, it is an incurable and devastating disease to have happen to a loved one. Hearing that his struggle lasted for over three years is gut-wrenching. Asking for their privacy to be respected at this time is a small request for such a noble heart. Rest in peace, Neal.

Art of the Film Festival Experience Part II

What happens during film festivals when a perfect alignment of writers, directors, actors, key industry players turn out for a networking social event? Powerful connections born under the stars. It happens more than inexperienced film festival organizers realize.

Navigating through Netflix last week, I came across Frozen River, its opening scene to this day, remains one of the most riveting. A closeup of a visibly distraught character Ray Eddy’s face (Melissa Leo) tells the whole story – desperation after a husband abandons his family taking all the money saved for their home, a double-wide trailer. What she and another down-on- her-luck woman, Lila Littlewolf, (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee, do to make money (smuggling across the northern international border) to keep their families together is strikingly similar to the hazardous decisions people make today in their attempts for a better life.

I first saw Frozen River at Sundance 2008 and then at the Lake Placid Film Forum. Writer-director Courtney Hunt was much praised and Melissa Leo won critical acclaim including the Best Actress award from the Independent Spirit Awards, New York Film Critics Circle Award, Sundance Film Festival and many others during that year on the film festival circuit.

It was, however, the 2007 Woodstock Film Festival in October that I remember watching Melissa at a social networking event where I noticed her intensity, her serious face to face conversations with individuals, huddled over drinks, talking strategy for the making of a film that could have a major impact on audiences and critics alike.

FilmFestivViews@Lake Placid Melissa Leo on Frozen River Episode 054

It was impressive to see the team at Lake Placid for a Q&A after the screening. Later, I asked to do a podcast with Melissa and did so at her home in Stone Ridge, NY. I was already a Melissa Leo fan since the television series, Homicide: Life on the Street. It was during my years living in the Washington, DC area, the series was set in Baltimore, a tough area at the time. Her role as Detective Sergeant Kay Howard was my hero. She was a tough cookie, no make up, no nonsense, worked hard, knew her stuff, acted decisively and was respected by rank and file members of the police force.

We talked about her boldness in taking such character roles. Seemingly written exclusively for her or because she makes the character so much her own? I believe she draws upon hellish ordeals that reflect the character’s angst and recourse. Powerfully intuitive as an actor. It wasn’t long after her performance in Frozen River, there came focus of public and media attention earning her several nominations and awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Whew.

Following the Frozen River viewing on Netflix, I had to watch another one with Melissa in it. Lo and behold, Yuri Turchyn and I watched The Fighter, (2010) where she won several awards for her performance as Alice Eklund-Ward. Winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, The Fighter grossed $93 million in U.S. and Canada. In other territories, it collected $35 million, for a worldwide total of $129 million. Not bad.

In 2017, I wanted Yuri to have the best film festival experience ever, so it was off to the Sundance Film Festival. On January 20, we watched the premiere of Novitiate. Set in the early 1960s, it’s a story of the effect the Vatican II council had on the Catholic Church as seen through the eyes of a hard core, old-fashioned Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair, played by non other, tough cookie with heart and soul, Melissa Leo. Just as the first time in 2008, I walked away from the screening talking for hours afterwards about the story, the writing, direction, its main characters, another superb performance. The rest of Sundance 2017 is part of another amazing story.

What makes this assemblage so consequential is the knowledgeable and competent festival directors’ and film programmers’ understanding for bringing together the elements and people allowing such remarkable projects to take shape. It can become quite the springboard of success for actors and the filmmakers adding positive reputation to the film festival. When it does happen, the festival director may feel the satisfaction of a seasoned matchmaker in their after parties and/or award events. Ultimately, creating opportunity for filmmakers is more important than just selling tickets for the bottom line. It makes for another great film festival experience.

Art of the Film Festival Experience Part I

I live for the film festival experience.

My earliest recollections of a log-line was in the TV Guide planning my weekly program viewing. Soon, I began writing log lines for titles coming out of my imagination and continued throughout high school and college– reading, writing, and immersing in cinematic culture. Art and foreign films saved the vaudeville theater houses and going to the movie theater became an integral part of my visceral link for storytelling. As more theaters turned to porn films for their survival, the film festival became the place to see films that would never make the Hollywood extortionist distribution racket at the box office. Instead, a richness involving the back story replaced the concession stand, behind-the-scenes discussions supplanted the celebrity gossip columnist and the independent filmmaker broke out of the big name studio’s vise-like grip developing cult followings, eventually finding their way into general audiences.

I witnessed this happening in 1989 during the Sundance Film Festival three years after it was overhauled from being the U.S. Film Festival. Our ski trip members were able to buy tickets the same day at the Egyptian Theater in Park City. Thirty years later, Sundance brings in $60 million for Utah, with over fifty thousand film festival aficionados descending upon the super well coordinated ten day event. Having attended the festival for more than a decade, I can say I have had an incredible film festival experience on more than one occasion and was responsible for others having the best film festival experience imaginable.

Returning to school a decade later, American University, Washington DC, opened the film industry world to me with a real life education about budgets and pre production, scripts and schedules, marketing and distribution, theatrical exhibition as well as, and especially, film festival exposure. Subscribing to Hollywood Reporter and Variety for film industry news and reviews was mandatory. It was imperative to understand the industry from the big studio perspective because that’s where the money was.

Three months after completing a master’s degree in Producing for Film and Video, finishing a documentary, and being a TA during AU’s School of Communications summer course in filmmaking, 9/11 happened. Hard to recall those dark days, but any money for anything related to filmmaking, digital media or marketing dried up completely. Scraping by, good things did spring out of the devastation, like the Tribeca Film Festival– rebuilding the neighborhood and community, annually reshaping, reworking, reorganizing into a strong festival. While we still have not been able to calculate the total loss of life and loved ones throughout the years, new technology and cinematic voices arose from the ashes. I have attended almost every one of Tribeca’s Film Festivals learning from them, reviewing many fascinating diverse topics that would never reach theatrical exhibition. The big name studios took notice of the independent film movement gaining traction and opened a few studios as an independent arm under their studio system. It didn’t last very long.

The seismic shift began in the winter 2007 during my tenure as account executive for a digital cinema network, Emerging Pictures/Emerging Cinemas. Within six months, almost all of the independent “arms” shut down. The affiliates, mostly historic theaters saved and supported by film societies, suffered during the downturn in the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. Another setback, but ultimately, more opportunity for film festivals to turn to their communities for support and strengthening their local independent film productions with fundraising and collective solidarity.

Many film festivals started out in the Hollywood celebrity-centered, style with glitz and glamour, red carpet, Gala Opening Night, a weekend of box office-quality films, after-party receptions, awards ceremonies, etc. having the disadvantage of often becoming an insular Garden club variety event or a founding person’s vanity project– a same old, same old annual weekend that exhausts everyone– the festival organizers, their volunteers, filmmakers, donors/supporters/sponsors, and finally the audience.

Whereas the past several years has shown a transition and makeover of what a film festival grows into by embracing new technology, welcoming accomplished film festival organizers with the know-how and ability for recognizing valuable skills volunteers have to offer. Utilizing skills in the best possible way ensures that film festivals can evolve into a solid cultural and viable entity contributing to the economic development for its local businesses and arts community. Does the film festival of today support what the film festival philosophy purports– that the power of storytelling and film draws the community closer together? Can it demonstrate an ability to grow steadily and become highly desirable for the next generation of filmmakers, solidifying regional film industries thus continuing a positive economic impact? I believe it’s possible.

Another seismic shift is on the horizon as the independent film industry readies to completely break from the behemoth Hollywood studio system whose tent pole movies keep the concession stands buzzing on opening weekend soon fading into obscurity. That’s why I live for the film festival experience. It lasts much longer and with greater satisfaction. Stay tuned.