Movie Review: Anvil!: The Story Of Anvil
In 2003, writer Bill Tuomala offerred a career overview of Van Halen from an alternate universe in which The Stooges, The Ramones and the Clash had become stadium rockers and knocked heavy metal bands deep into the underground. “If you were lucky and knew someone in the know or if you hung out in the right record store, you might have gotten turned on to some metal during the seventies. Like there was underground favorites Led Zeppelin…” Tuomala describes Halen as dogged explorers who pursued their own path in the face of total commercial failure, but who finally got some belated respect when Nirvana became famous in 1991 (“The Year Metal Broke”) and had Eddie and Dave join them on their MTV Unplugged special.
The non-fictional Toronto band Anvil could have sprung out of that universe. Formed in the late seventies by guitarist/ vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, the band have no problem getting everyone from Metallica to Slayer to Guns ‘N Roses to Anthax to virtually all of the hugely popular metal bands that sprung up just a few years later - to testify passionately on their behalf in the first five minutes of this fascinating documentary by Sacha Gervasi. English scribe Malcolm Dome describes their 1982 album Metal On Metal as “the heaviest thing you’d EVER HEARD,” and right at that moment, it might have been true. They were intense for their time, pushing the double-kick blast beats and blinding minor-key arpeggios beyond Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, gnarlier and more thrash-like than anything from that time besides Venom. As Metallica manager Johnny Z puts it, “There’s a sound on that album that has become part of the basic formula for every heavy metal record made today.”
But they didn’t stay ahead of the heaviness curve for long. By 1984, with the first wave of thrash metal, they couldn’t keep up with the brutal young kids they’d inspired, nor did they have the pop hooks to compete with Ratt and Twisted Sister for radio hits. So, for the last twenty-five years, they’ve just been quietly, if noisily, doing their own thing and playing to whoever will hear them. And that’s where the film picks up at about the sixth minute. This is not an archival “Behind The Music” style career overview meant to trumpet their finest moments through the decades, this is a year in the life of a real underground band, whose members work day jobs and sacrifice to keep the dream alive.
In Robb’s case, he seems to have sacrificed the respect of his sister Droid, who casts herself as the Voice Of Reason amidst the chaos of her brother’s life. “It’s OVER, and it’s been over for a long time, and it’s too bad nobody’s living in the real world. When you’ve been in a band for thirty years, and you;re working on yout thirteenth album or CDs or whatever, and you can still only get a hundred people to come see you in a BAR at any one time…”
And actually, it looks like a turnout of a hundred would be one of the good nights. The filmmakers follow the group through a tour of Scandanavia and Eastern Europe which is literally road-managed by their hired-gun rhythm guitarist’s girlfriend and boy, you have to feel for them. The tour is bookended by a couple of decently attended festival shows in Sweden and Romania, with a week’s worth of hell-ride through the tiny bars and rec centers of Europe in between, which climaxes with Lips threatening the life of a Czech promotor who has tried to pay the band with four plates of goulash. Every train they’re not late for is sold out. Nobody can understand the girlfriend’s accent and they keep getting wrong directions.
By the time they hit Munich and once again the manager is screaming in someone's face about getting paid, Robb is ready to call off the gig, quit and fly home, but Lips has the Faith and assures him everything is cool. “Let’s just go play - and then we’ll move on. Anyway the place is jam-fuckin' packed.” Lips is evidently one persuasive dude, because the camera shows attendance to be approximately a dozen people, including one fat kid who takes up an entire couch by himself, frantically air-drumming through the set.
But therein lies the beauty of this film, and the band - if Lips can get through to one fat kid in Munich, it’s all worth it. Lips comes off as an evangelist of himself, of the purity of his goal, of how bad he wants it - the Rock. He re-mortgages his house, borrows something like twenty-five grand from his big sister to record the band’s new album in England, with their original producer, Chris Tsangarides. Lucky number thirteen, this is surely going to be IT, their big shot. “I’m gonna fucking DO IT!”, he hollers at the camera with the eyes of Stanley Kowalski, but his lower lip quivers a little as soon as it comes out of his mouth. He tearfully accepts the money from his sister, and she cries a little too, as she says “I just want to see him achieve the fame that he’s worked so hard for.” It seems to be uttered with a grim acceptance that the money is gone forever, but her brother is, briefly, a happy man with something to do.
Robb is the realist of the group, the one who seems to have other avenues in mind, including painting. His most memorable works are a picture af a tremendous anvil placed in a city square “like a God”, surrounded by Candian flags, and a highly realistic depiction of a turd in a toilet bowl. “If you really look at it, touch it, you can see it’s got some real texture,” he invites, while demonstrating. He’s also the most willing to walk away from the band when it beomes intolerable, as when the camera catches Lips with his hands around Robb’s neck during week six of the recording sessions in England, hollering about negative energy and disruption. But dramatic though these scenes are, there’s never any doubt that this heavy metal bromance is going to weather anything life can come up with at this late date.
“At least, when it’s all said and done, I can say it’s ALL said and done, instead of ‘I should have done this, or I wish I had done that’…” says Lips as we see him loading crates at his food delivery job. After the European tour, he muses, “Things went DRASTICALLY wrong, but, at least there WAS a tour for them to go wrong on.” To put it another way, he also says, “Anvil gives me my happiness.” This is the kind of thing that the sister Droids of the world may never get, and the reason why we should all stop listening to them. Sometimes you find that thing that floats your boat more than any other, and if you have the chance to run after it, you’d be foolish not to. And if that chance isn't handed to you, sometimes you have to work hard to create it.
As the movie ends, the band is about to take the stage at a festival in Japan, at 11:35 in the morning, not sure if the doors will have even opened by that time. Even as Lips stresses out backstage about having come all this way to maybe play to an empty room, as they head yo the stage, the mischievous grins come out, the chests puff up a little, and you can tell that, either way, there’s no way they’d have missed it. That’s what rock and roll can do.
Anvil!: The Story of Anvil opens today at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd. and runs through April 16.