Anvil: The Story of Anvil is a documentary about a supposedly great and a supposedly massively influential early 80’s Canadian heavy-metal band that just never quite took off. In 1984, they were in Japan for a massive arena concert among aspiring “metal gods” — Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, and Whitesnake — but unlike the rest of the lineup at that concert, nothing ever really became of Anvil. This despite the fact that guys like GnR’s Slash, Motorhead’s Lemmy, and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich name-check them in the documentary as one of the three major early metal influences. God knows why. Their music is horrible. Thrashy, indecipherable, and throat-punchy — heavy on the drums and distortion and light on the melody. In other words, it’s the real metal, sans bubblegum or pop, and I hate that shit.
Fortunately, the documentary itself — directed by Sacha Gervasi, who wrote The Terminal, and who is a huge Anvil fan (he was a roadie for the band in the 80s) — is much better than the actual music. I think it’s meant to be a heart-warming, inspirational documentary about a band that sticks together despite their lack of success because they love the music, but I found it achingly depressing. Twenty-five years after that Tokyo concert — the highlight of Anvil’s career — Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, is a delivery driver who shuttles food supplies to school cafeterias. Meanwhile, the other original band member, drummer Robb Reiner, is working construction. Both are married to women that clearly haven’t updated their look since 1984. Lips just turned 50, and yet the band is still playing tiny clubs around Toronto with 30 or 40 people in attendance, banging their heads to Anvil’s biggest hit, Metal to Metal, while Kudlow — with a craggy face and a giant bald spot on the back of his head — is still playing guitar with a dildo. They’re still pursuing that dream, oblivious to the fact that it’s not a particularly attainable one.
The documentary first follows Lips and Reiner as they embark on an effort to record their 13th album and, despite a music world that has completely passed them by, try to finally gain some recognition and an actual record deal. Their efforts begin with a small European tour, arranged by a manager they basically meet online and who doesn’t have a knack for putting together concert tours. The entire ordeal is marred by disastrous transportation problems, club owners who refuse to pay, and worse: venues where only three or four people show up for the show, despite the fact that Anvil still has some vestige of popularity in Europe (their Transylvania show, however, goes over well).
After the tour, Lips and Reinner — who have been together for 30 years and act like it, which is to say, a bickering old married couple who can’t decide if they should hug or punch one another — try to get their first producer, Chris Tsangarides (who produced Thin Lizzy, Depeche Mode, Tom Jones, and Judas Priest, among many others) to produce their new album. The problems are numerous, but the biggest is the amount of money they need to raise to hire Tsangarides, something like $25,000, which is a lot of scratch for a guy delivering cafeteria food. No matter: Lips and Reiner, even in their 50s, still have family that support them and their dreams. Which is sweet. And kind of misguided.
As much as the movie is about Anvil’s attempts to finally find fame, it’s largely about the relationship between Lips and Reiner. It’s a very endearing friendship, characterized by equal parts passive-aggressiveness and devout loyalty to one another. Both guys are a little on the dim side, and their interactions with both one another and the outside world have a lot of unintentional similarities to This is Spinal Tap, which is both funny and heartbreaking. You want to root for them to succeed, but there’s a small part of you that wants to grab their necks and say, “Dudes! It’s time to move the fuck on. Hang up the guitar straps. You have a family to support.” And while some of their family suggests as much behind the band members’ backs, in person, they’re encouraging in the way that a Mom might tell her paralyzed son that he’ll be able to walk again. Someday. Hope is an obscenely powerful drug, folks. And everyone once in a while — to save us from the earth-shattering reality — it might be better tempered with practicality.
And that’s what struck me the hardest about Anvil: The Story of Anvil: These two guys are happy-go-lucky, earnest motherfuckers (they are Canadian, after all) who believe in themselves, in the band, and in their inevitable success so much that disappointment has become nothing but white noise in the background of their lives. They trudge on, oblivious to the changed musical landscape. And it kind of kills me to know that the kind of success they are seeking will forever elude them, barring the comeback of Rikki Rachtman and The Headbanger’s Ball. Back in the 80s, I remember a lot of bands who used to proclaim that they’d never break up, and that 30 years from now, they’d still be putting out records as long as one person was there to buy them. Anvil is the band that followed through on that promise. Unfortunately, their lives might have been a lot better off if they hadn’t.
And to save myself from the same fate, I think I better go get a job in a law firm.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.