Anvil! A review of Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The audience is made up of equal parts leather-clad true believers, college-age hipsters, and, like me, cinematic onlookers hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime multimedia experience. I’d never heard of the Canadian hard rockers Anvil, but since the unveiling of the sweetly-titled documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, at Sundance in 2008, buzz had been mounting. I frequently check this particular theater’s online listings, never knowing when a special event may appear, and tonight I’ve hit the jackpot: Anvil itself is going to be at this midnight showing, thrashing through what could be hyperbolically called their greatest hits after the last credit rolls.
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Directed by former 80s Anvil roadie (and “England’s number one Anvil fan”) Sacha Gervasi1, the film has an irresistible premise promising dollops of pathos and queasy humor. A heavy metal-making machine contemporaneous with Slayer, Judas Priest, and even Bon Jovi, Anvil made a minor splash with their 1982 album, Metal on Metal, and live antics like lead singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow sliding a dildo down his guitar’s neck. Between 1983′s Forged in Fire and 1984′s Backwaxed (!) came the mockumentary spoof This is Spinal Tap, the most notable template for Anvil!’s form and the subject of several of its in-jokes. Supposedly like a real-life Tap, despite avowed influence on the metal scene, Anvil suffered through declining record sales, ineffective managers, increasingly poor album production, and the general malaise of record buyers towards their brand of head-pounding thrash as the 80s became the 90s and the 90s became the 2000s. It’s now 2009, and while their music is no more marketable than before, Anvil! promises them a resurgence of interest, even if only from the gawkers of this ultimately uplifting, warts-and-all portrait.
After a quick Behind the Music montage of live footage from Japan and nostalgic talking-heads interviews with such luminary Anvil fans and acolytes as Scott Ian of Anthrax, Slash of Guns ‘n ‘Roses, and Lars Ulrich from Metallica (who muses that Anvil’s lack of success was due to “that whole Canadian thing”), we come face to face with the now middle-aged co-founders of Anvil, Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner 2. Somewhere between Lennon/McCartney and Martin/Lewis, the childhood friends retain an air of seen-it-all, married-couple camaraderie, sometimes exasperated and at other times, usually on stage, ruthlessly in sync. Without explicitly mentioning Tap except through oblique references (an amp turned to 11, a good-natured visit to Stonehenge), Anvil! uses parallels to that parody’s enduring goofiness as bait, only to switch to the incisive self-clarity of the band’s two founders.
Like Tap, Anvil! neuters the idea that all heavy metal practitioners are sleazy sex maniacs and demonic devil worshipers, but instead of reframing them as essentially harmless dolts, the film reveals two family men still playing the music they loved as teens thirty-five years ago, frustrated by a world of corporate values. Rock stopped paying the bills or providing a lifestyle long ago, so Kudlow and Reiner take blue-collar jobs (Lips delivers food and Robb works constructions) and play on weekends or during vacation time, although I’d imagine the guys consider being Anvil their true career. At one point, Kudlow tries telemarketing for one of Anvil’s rabid local fans, but his transparently affable demeanor renders him useless. You can probably see his bright eyes and rubbery smile even over the phone. He’s the frontman of the movie as well as of the band, a ball of manic energy on stage and off, a kid who knows he never really grew up.
Reiner keeps the beat for Anvil, and similarly his presence grounds much of Kudlow’s spontaneity. He’s arguably the better musician of the two, organizing a creative space/recording studio in his basement. He reminisces over photos of his young self sitting at a drum kit, grinning and whirling his arms into blurs. He emotionally recalls his father, a Holocaust survivor, encouraging him to follow his dreams. In interviews, his wife wears an Anvil T-shirt and warmly praises his eccentricities; his sister wants him to leave that part of his life behind, calling him a “loser.” Even if the viewer pragmatically sides with the sister, Anvil’s underdog journey hits too close to home for so many creative types burdened by contemporary culture’s utilitarianism. Transcending the mere genre of heavy metal, or the mere medium of music, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is really a paean to making art any way you can, for its sake and yours, the fickleness of money and fame be damned. That Reiner and Kudlow aren’t Renoir and Picasso on the art scale makes it even more imperative that they continue their creative lives.
The actual plot of the documentary contains the standard valleys and peaks of a rock doc, beginning with a badly-conceived tour of Europe that shows the band just how far from commercial stardom it is and culminating in the recording of their aptly-titled thirteenth studio album, This is Thirteen, enriched by the participation of their hard rock record producer from over twenty years before.3 In between there are snippets of performances new and old, occasional in-fighting over creative matters, and general gratefulness for being able to rock out at all after all these years. If the story’s dramatic arc and a few possibly recreated scenes hew too close to formula, it only reinforces the guys’ noble, fundamental ordinariness.
Inside my theater, a placard capitalizing on new releases advertises the movie with Star Trek uniforms superimposed on the bodies of Anvil’s founders, and the Kirk/Spock dichotomy is apt. Reiner is the more stoic of the duo, an anchor for Kudlow’s decent, sometimes emotionally fraught and impulsive dreamer, both forever looking at the stars. In its final nod to Spinal Tap, the film proper ends in the crowded, neon metropolis of Tokyo, Kudlow and Reiner taking their rightful places at the center of things. Anvil! closes on the truism that the Japanese love their heavy metal and can reignite even the most unlikely phoenix.
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The credits roll, the lights come down, leading right into the so-called “Anvil Experience,” a seven city mini-tour. This medium-sized art house theater becomes a heavy metal haven, the band running through a half-dozen songs, including their one rightful hit, “Metal on Metal,” and the title track to the new album, all gloriously face-melting, especially Reiner’s frenetic tour de force drum centerpiece “White Rhino.” Before the show, the lobby had seemed crowded with fans and soon-to-be fans alike, but once the short live show starts, the theater is revealed to be about half-empty (or as Robb and Lips would probably see it, half-full). I feel bad for a few moments, flashing back to the sparsely-attended European shows of the band’s ill-fated 2007 tour, but then I realize that not only was the band probably not paid for several of those shows, but that Anvil! the movie allows Anvil the men a triumphant vision of themselves, heroic and persevering in a profoundly likable, human way, less cartoonish or crass than in their 80s heyday. I gladly headbang along.
Once the decibels die down, I consider hanging around to talk to the guys and stand in queue at the lobby. The metalhead in front of me, possibly an original fan, judging from his age and sheer giddiness, holds an LP in one hand and a flip-phone camera in the other. After a few minutes of being fourth or fifth in line, I reconsider, turn away, and exit after giving Lips a hearty fist-pump as he’s momentarily turned towards me. I decide I’ve already seen what I want to of Anvil, a cheerful rock footnote still grasping onto their collective childhood dream, and I wish them all the luck the gods of metal wish to bestow. Based on the critical and popular enthusiasm greeting the movie so far, I imagine those gods smiling down, electric guitar neck or drum stick in one hand and the other forming the benedictive devil’s horn gesture, banging their heads in collective pride.
Edited by Matt Schneider.
- He also co-founded the band that would become Bush, wrote The Big Tease with Craig Ferguson and The Terminal for Steven Spielberg, and fathered Geri Halliwell’s child. Busy guy. ↩
- Every reviewer of this film has noted this completely unintentional, ironic connection to the director of Spinal Tap, but I won’t. Oh, wait. ↩
- I’m an Anvil neophyte and have yet to listen to Thirteen in its entirety, but stronger Anvil-philes than I can purchase it on the band’s website. ↩