Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)
Imagine a real-life This is Spinal Tap! and you’ll have a fertile starting ground to tackle the rock documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. There are so many unintentional references to that landmark mockumentary that you’ll be forgiven for suspecting that Anvil is fake. They even have music knobs that go to eleven! You see, Anvil played with other rock and roll headliners like The Scorpions, White Snake, and Bon Jovi in 1984. They were on the cusp of fame and stardom and then… it just didn’t happen. Flash forward, and the Anvil band members are still playing together and fighting for the fame that has eluded them for over 25 years. Singer/lead guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow lives in his native Canada and delivers lunches to school cafeterias. Drummer Rob Reiner (absolutely no relation to the director of Spinal Tap) works meager construction jobs. They both have wives and children, but they haven?t put their dreams on hold and know the fame they deserve is just one more opportunity away.
The band is not without its fans, and one of them is Tiziana Arrigoni, a Swedish woman who loves heavy metal and books Anvil an ill-fated tour of gigs throughout Eastern Europe. And just like Spinal Tap, everything that can go wrong generally does go wrong. The band misses several trains. The clubs they play are small, mostly attracting a handful of die-hard fans and drunks. They get lost in Prague and arrive two hours late to their gig. The club owner refuses to pay the band, instead offering them plates of goulash for their payment. The deepest cut is when the band is booked for the “Monsters of Transylvania” show in Romania at a venue that can seat 10,000. Lips even marvels that, “The mayor of Transylvania is gonna be there!” Only 175 attend the event (it is unclear whether or not the mayor was in attendance). The hapless Tiziana breaks down and cries, “I try,” and you honestly believe her; what kind of European venues should a Canadian metal band 25 years past their prime be playing? I can’t imagine anyone else with no managing experience could do better given the circumstances. Lips seems to see the same silver lining: “Everything on the tour went drastically wrong. But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on.”
This section of the movie ends at about the half-hour mark and I was left wondering what would be next. Then I understood the smarts of director Sacha Gervasi as a filmmaker because by watching Anvil endure the inequities of failure and humiliation early on, the audience will quickly sympathize with these rock dinosaurs. They fight for their dreams and surely they deserve better, and you will be on their side. This isn’t a spoof or a self-conscious skewering of a bunch of over-the-hill hasbeens. You feel for these guys, and the film offers several moments of surprising poignancy as they struggle to make ends meet, labor in dead-end jobs, and spend time with their loving families doing simple things like eating a pizza. Both Lips and Reiner are described as great family men, though one wonders what kinds of life moments they have missed out chasing fame. Don’t feel too bad for Tiziana either; she ends up marrying the band’s bassist. Their wedding reception is the greatest comic moment in the movie. Anvil rocks out at the reception and the disinterested audience looks like they are being held captive.
It’s the relationship between Lips and Reiner that gives the movie its heart. These aren’t the most self-aware subjects and are given to outlandish statements, but they’re just so overwhelmingly positive in the face of relentless adversity. He walks into various record company offices and hand delivers the newest Anvil album, hoping to get his calls returned eventually. In Canada, Lips and Reiner meet with an A&R man for EMI, and it is painful to watch. The A&R guy takes notes like a secretive psychiatrist and then he shuts off the music after no more than seconds. He tells the Anvil guys that if EMI doesn’t feel like it can give the band what they deserve then they won’t go forward with any album release. He’s brushing them off and making it sound like he’s doing them a favor. And yet Lips keeps chugging along like the little engine that could because he has to. The band mates look to him for inspiration. Often a band’s relationship is compared to a marriage, and this seems appropriate for Lips and Reiner. They’ve been friends since high school, stuck together through thick and thin, and their brotherhood is undeniably touching. Lips talks about the intense pressure he endures and how he feels like leaping off a cliff sometimes. Reiner, right there by Lips’ side, adds, “Well, you won’t jump off the cliff because I’ll stop you,” and then he just beams with pride in their friendship. Lips looks over and he too gets choked up. It’s a genuinely heartfelt moment and encapsulates the emotion mined in the film.
The family members seem to politely go along with the boys? wishes, especially the wives who say in revealing interviews that they too have put their lives on hold for their husband’s ambitions. In one scene, Lips’ sister agrees to loan her baby brother the money to record another Anvil album. She starts to cry on camera and we’re left with the quiet contemplation over what she may be so tearful about. Does she feel joy helping her brother continue on his quest, giving him another jolt of life and a reason to live for, or does she feel guilt and resignation knowing that she is enabling a comeback that is never going to happen, only delaying her brother’s cruel return back to reality. The Anvil boys do have patient and mostly supportive family members, though Reiner’s sister likes to get in easy digs here and there, calling Anvil a “joke.” At one point, Reiner’s wife rebuts the oft-repeated claim that these middle-aged headbangers need to “give up and get a real job” by being candidly self-reflective, talking about her own desire to touch fame through her husband’s achievements, and that she too dreams as much as her husband. It’s a nice moment and an insightful peak into the family lives of rock musicians.
If Anvil has one obvious flaw it’s that Gervasi turns the film into a valentine to his favorite band from his youth. The movie ends on a 1985 picture of Gervasi with Lips, and apparently the director also served as a roadie on one of the band’s mid 80s Canadian tours, so I understand his enthusiasm for a subject near and dear to his heart, but his movie also forgoes any real criticism of the band. There is conflict that goes unexplored. Why didn’t the band actually make it? The movie seems to excuse the band from any blame, although perhaps writing rock songs without a hook might have doomed their radio play. They were skilled musically but can their decline into obscurity all be chalked up to fate and bad management? When the band records their thirteenth album, the “comeback” album, why do they even bother going after major labels? Why do they not go to a niche label, a label that specifically markets to heavy metal fans, the only people who may still acknowledge the demand for another Anvil album? Why, in today’s technologically evolving music market, are these guys not selling the album themselves and online, like what Radiohead did in 2007 for their album, In Rainbows? We see in interviews that notable rock musicians from Metallica and Anthrax admired Anvil, so why didn’t any of them help out when the band was falling apart? What is at the heart of the pain between Lips and Reiner? I’m pleased that Gervasi didn’t lambaste his teenage idols but his movie also could have benefited from further inquiry. He may be too close to the topic to make Anvil a seminal music industry documentary, but Gervasi does keep the movie engaging and, like Lips himself, keeps the darkness at bay no matter the situation.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil is an entertaining documentary that manages to be funny, sad, touching, and inspirational. It doesn’t dig too deep but then again you?re kind of pleased just to be along for the ride and explore these aging musicians? family lives. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that the men of Anvil get some well-earned recognition by the end of the movie, coming full circle from that 1984 Japanese rock festival. You don?t have to be a fan of metal music whatsoever to enjoy this movie; in fact, the film curiously never plays a full song from the band. Anvil is an enjoyable labor of love for Gervasi, and it’s hard not to fall under the same nostalgic spell.
Nate’s Grade: B