By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Anvil just may be the most stubborn heavy metal band in history.
After 30 years of recording and touring, its name is still unknown to most rock fans. But, nonetheless, the once-briefly famous group still grabs club owners by their shirt collars in order to get paid, still misses trains on European tours and still gets shot down by major-label A&R guys because the "landscape has changed."
It's all there in the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which opens on Friday night at the Magnolia Theatre, with a performance from the band itself after the 9:30 p.m. screening.
Obscure, Canadian and led by two family men in their 50s who borrow obscene amounts of money to hire famous producers for albums that will never get distribution, Anvil simply refuses to quit playing music, which could have made them perfect subjects for another Behind the Music episode or, worse, a real-life This Is Spinal Tap.
Instead, Anvil! is one of the sweetest rock and roll stories ever produced.
And, partially, that's because there is so much comedy in the band's tragedies. Director Sacha Gervasi has the camera rolling for every Anvil blunder—and there are many, from the group performing for 174 people at a venue that holds 10,000 to listening as the drummer, Robb Reiner, casually relays the fact that singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow regularly rips his gold drumstick necklace from around his neck in fits of anger. Gervasi has a wealth of punch lines to choose from, but he's judicious in using them, editing them in subtly for maximum impact.
And he doesn't go the predictable route of skewering this cult band for continuing three decades after its 15 minutes of fame ended. Instead, he offers a more universal narrative: Anvil! touches on the difficulty of giving up on a dream you've invested with your life. It's an identifiable sentiment, regardless of whether your props come, as Anvil's have, from an overly made-up member of Twisted Sister at a music festival.
The film begins by giving viewers the band's context. It shows the group playing a huge concert in the '80s alongside household names such as The Scorpions and Bon Jovi. There are interviews with heavy-metal gods discussing Anvil's importance—the Toronto act's early recordings, including 1982's Metal on Metal, apparently hold high places in metal history. But after the band's third record, it fell off the radar, for reasons no one in the film can really explain. Lips now makes a living working for an elementary school catering company, while Reiner works in construction.
It takes a pretty strong self-image to be the everyman in your day job and the invisible rock star at night. But Lips and Reiner are such teddy bears, so naïve in their drive, that you wonder how they've managed to keep the tiny Anvil bubble afloat without the cold, cruel world coming in for a pop. One answer: These men are total metal lifers, as seen when Lips is backstage at a festival Anvil plays, giddily sprinting after childhood idols to gush about his affection for their work.
The group's strength also stems from the deep bond between Lips and Reiner. They met as adolescents—and, inspired by a history class on the Spanish Inquisition, wrote their first song together, "Thumb Hang." Now on the other side of 50, the two men talk about one another like brothers—and fight as though they're still 14. They repeatedly get into the same arguments; Lips is a powder keg of reactive frustration and cries often, whereas Reiner gets sick of the drama and of being broke. He calmly threatens to walk away, Lips sniffles out a sincere apology and they go on, like war veterans whose love for one another surpasses anything romantic or familial.
But unlike the whine sessions in Some Kind of Monster, where Metallica's group therapy made the musicians seem really obnoxious, Anvil's figureheads project nothing but the deepest sincerity in their breakdowns. Despite the fights, there's a real kindness in the way they treat one another. Add in the band's underdog status, and these tiffs become strangely moving—when, of course, they aren't totally hilarious, which is often the case.
Let's face it, though: Anvil's songs are dated. There are better metal bands out there. But watching Anvil! makes you root for these guys nonetheless—if not for the music, then for their indomitable fighting spirit, and the humility with which they've taken their lot. (Lips in particular finds the good in everything, including a booking agent who botches their European tour.)
In an era where young bands act jaded after one round of blog buzz, it's refreshing to hear from musicians who spend their entire lives taking nothing for granted. Thirty years of playing metal ain't nothing to laugh at—even if, as Anvil! proves, it provides plenty of moments to laugh with.