Anvil! The Story of Anvil is the kind of movie people pregame for. I know because some dude blew chunks all over the floor at Slim’s, hastily erected rows of folding chairs and a teeming mass of heavy metal cinemaniacs denying him the solace of the bathroom stall. Anvil is a little-known Canadian metal band, an acknowledged influence of the 80’s “Big Four” (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) that never really got their due, never really hit the big time. Screwed over by labels, promoters, and Lady Luck (perhaps the biggest offender), they toil in obscurity, trudging through the Ontario snow to work thankless day jobs and dreaming of the heavy metal big time that, in their graying, balding state, seems increasingly unlikely.
The stars of the movie are Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, two nice Jewish boys who bonded as teenagers over visions of rock and roll stardom, visions that they are constitutionally incapable of giving up. Despite the misgivings of their families (who provide hilarious, skeptical commentary throughout), they first appear in director Sascha Gervasi’s movie ready to give it one last go, with a big tour of Europe lined up–a chance to storm the gates of the world’s metal stronghold, and finally bask in the limelight they’ve worked so hard for.
Kudlow is a inimitable fellow, a buffoonish frontman with a showman’s soul and an inexhaustible well of optimism. His philosophy of life and music is simple, delivered with an earnestness that belies its essential hilarity: “it could never be worse than the way it is now.” Reiner, his opposite number, is more level-headed, though no less committed, and his soft-spoken caveats often make him the target of Kudlow’s bromantic ire.
The tour of Europe is an unmitigated disaster, although you’d have to be pretty dim not to see it coming. With no options left, Anvil decides to go all in, wrangling the services of legendary British heavy metal producer Chris Tsangarides and securing a loan from Kudlow’s wealthy sister. The scene in which he thanks her for her generosity, she ruminates on the importance of kinship ties, and he responds with a tearful “family’s important shit, man” has to be seen to be believed. In the studio to record their 13th album, the pair engage in some classic Behind The Music infighting (painfully familiar, I’m sure, to anyone who’s had to navigate the emotional minefield of being in a band) before reconciling their differences and getting the disc finished.
At this point, all seems well, although you don’t have to be well versed in Anvil history to realize that around the corner from every success lurks a massive setback. Still, Kudlow is hopeful for the future. As the movie ended, the screen retracted to reveal the band, in all their glory, set up on stage. For a group that’s been waiting so long for their shot, they seemed poorly-rehearsed, and left the stage abruptly, albeit returning for a heartfelt encore. Maybe its fitting, though, that they were only kind of good.
Leaving aside the astounding coincidence that Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner, it is worth noting the Spinal Tap paralells, which the film treats with admirable good humor. The band’s petty failures have a tragicomic predictability, and Kudlow’s untrammeled brain-to-mouth conduit is the progenitor of a lot of laughs. The band visits Stonehenge, and Tsangarides’ equipment has knobs that go up to 11.Â New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott admitted considering the possibility that the movie was an elaborate hoax, which says something about the enthusiastic ridiculousness of the band’s material and album art as well as, I would go so far to say, Scott’s familiarity with the excesses of heavy metal.
Nobody knows where Anvil will go from here, though a wide-ranging tour supporting the film and a presumably budding audience of cineastes who like the band ironically probably can’t hurt. Director Gervasi roadied for the group during their brief period of success, and it is clear that though he is willing to air the band’s many foibles, he has a genuine respect for their hard work, dedication, and perversely undaunted confidence, a respect that is hard not to share. If Anvil’s fourteenth album is a hit, I will be the first person to say they deserve it, and I can’t imagine that anyone who watches this documentary could say otherwise.
Opens Friday, April 24th at Landmark Theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley