Review: “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2008)
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. I spent my teenage years trapped in a household with a heavy-metal-banging older brother, who, when no one was around, or only I was around, would close all the windows in our house, turn up the volume on the record player, and, with the rake we used for our lime-green shag carpet as his microphone, sing along to Zeppelin or Sabbath:
Generals gathered in their masses!
Just like witches at black masses!
I always gave him shit about those lyrics. “Nice rhyme,” I’d say.
So I wouldn’t seem the ideal audience for “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about the little heavy-metal band that couldn’t (break through).
And yet, as with Randy the Ram of “The Wrestler,” another dude with whom I have nothing in common, I wound up not only caring but identifying. The two original members of Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are in their 50s now and still fighting the good fight. Actually that’s one of the unanswered questions in the doc: Is it still a good fight?
“Anvil” begins with footage from a 1984 heavy-metal tour of Japan, which featured bands such as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions — all of whom would go on to sell millions of records — and Anvil, who would not. Various talking heads, from Lemmy of Motorhead to Slash of Guns N’ Roses, then talk quickly about Anvil’s antics on stage (Lips playing his guitar with a dildo), how influential they were, and what the hell happened. “Everyone sort of ripped them off,” Slash says, “then sort of left them for dead.”
Cut to: modern-day Toronto in winter. Lips, his thinning hair still long, his eyes wide with optimism, a half-smile on his face, is driving and matter-of-factly talking food — meatloaf and shepherd’s pie — and we’re wondering if he’s driving to where he eats or works. It’s the latter. He’s a delivery guy.
Reiner, with the irony-infused same name as the director of “This is Spinal Tap,” the irony-infused monster of all heavy-metal mockumentaries, works construction. He has a quality similar to U2’s Edge — like he’s the last guy in the world to get angry — and he and Lips are still friends, and still pal around Toronto. We see them play a gig at a sports bar for Lips' 50th birthday. A couple of longtime fans are there, headbanging and singing along.
They’ve had new bandmates since ’95 and ’96, and overall they’ve put out a total of 12 albums, but this is their life. It’s like most of our lives: Not bad, but full of What Ifs.
Then (even in documentaries there’s a “then”) Lips gets an e-mail from a female fan in Europe, Tiziani Arrigoni, who offers to manage the band for a European tour, and off they go. One hopes for success, one fears she’ll rip them off, but the reality is somewhere in between. She has a good heart but she’s not a professional. Things keep going wrong. They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them — because they were late — and we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who quickly loses his half-smile and, spittle flying, nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a natural heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transylvania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter.
And so it goes. We learn more about the (Jewish) family history of each. Lips’ father was at odds with his career choice (everyone else in his family is a successful professional), while Robb’s father, who survived Auschwitz, was fine with whatever his son wanted to do. Robb also paints in the style of Edward Hopper, whom he likes for his sense of quiet. Apparently even heavy-metal drummers want quiet.
You get the feeling Robb could give it up, but Lips, eyes bugging with perpetual optimism, half-smile beginning to strain after all these years, keeps pushing. They’re going to put out a 13th album, this time with legendary producer Chris Tsangarides, but they need money. A scene where Lips tries telemarketing is painful to watch. Each hurdle jumped, or stumbled over, leads to another. Will they raise the money? Will they be able to stay together long enough to record the album? Will they be able to sell it to a record company? Will anyone listen?
All the while they wonder over what went wrong. Was it management? Was it production? Lips in particular embodies the schizophrenia of the semi- or un-successful artist. One moment he’s ready to swear off music-making completely; the next he’s telling himself that it’s the doing — the creative act — that matters, regardless of the response it engenders. Talk about hitting home. This internal dialogue is my own. Every day.
The doc, which zips along, will be compared to “Spinal Tap,” and, yes, there are funny moments in it, and, yes, even the title, with its conscious repetition, is funny. But filmmaker Sacha Gervasi, a fan and former Anvil roadie, who also wrote the screenplay for “The Terminal," does his subjects the courtesy of taking them seriously. He presents them in raw and real and complex fashion.
The blurbs in the poster above mention that the film is “inspirational” and “a hymn to the human spirit,” but for me its strength lies in its ambiguity. You walk away not knowing if these guys are inspirational, or delusional, or both. The answer to Lips’ internal dialogue, in other words, is as unanswerable as our own, and, finally, the answer may not be what matters. I keep going back to what Van Morrison sings in “Summertime in England”: It ain’t why why why why why why why. It just is. Same here. In both this doc and in this room where I’m writing about this doc.
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. But “Anvil” floored me.