(2007)4Mark DemingBruce Springsteen asked the question "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?" in his song "The River," and while Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner, being serious metalheads, probably don't spend much time listening to "The Boss," a thought like this must have occurred to them sometime in the past three decades. Kudlow and Reiner are the founding members of Anvil, a Canadian heavy-metal band who were one of the pioneering acts in thrash metal, cranking up the tempo and intensity of heavy rock before Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, or Slayer could take the sound to the masses. While those bands went on to varying degrees of stardom, Anvil were in the wrong place at the wrong time; they were based in Toronto, never a big town for hard rock, and signed to a small independent label that didn't have much promotional muscle, and when thrash began to climb out of the clubs and into arenas in the late '80s, Anvil had gone into a creative slump. Most bands facing such circumstances would throw in the towel, but most bands are not Anvil. Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi is a longtime fan who used to roadie for Anvil, and his documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil is an alternately hilarious and poignant story of two guys who refuse to stop chasing their dream, even if it has been just out of reach for 25 years.
Gervasi begins by establishing Anvil's credibility, presenting clips from the 1980s of the band rocking arenas with the Scorpions and Bon Jovi as members of Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Slayer, Anthrax, and Motörhead sing the group's praises. Then we meet Kudlow as he drives to his day job -- working for a catering outfit that delivers pre-made lunches to schools. Kudlow, Anvil's lead singer and guitarist, is a likable, slightly goofy guy who possesses a big grin and a boundless enthusiasm for music, and with his broad Canadian accent and fondness for toques he could pass for a distant cousin of Doug and Bob McKenzie. Reiner, the drummer, has been his best friend since they were in their early teens; he's not much of a talker and doesn't smile often, but he's fiercely loyal to Kudlow, whom he calls his brother. As Gervasi introduces us to Anvil, Kudlow and Reiner are still devoted to the cause, but the rewards aren't what they once were -- they can draw a handful of devoted fans to a sports bar, but they don't have a record deal, a manager, or much in the way of prospects. When a fan in Eastern Europe offers to help set up a tour, Kudlow, Reiner, and their younger bandmates are raring to go, but after a set at a festival in Germany (where they run into a number of old comrades from the road, several of whom clearly and humiliatingly don't remember them), they set out for a few weeks of small club shows for small-time promoters who offer them goulash rather than paying them. Back at home, Anvil are ready to cut their 13th album, and Chris Tsangarides, a respected producer who worked with them in their glory days, is more than happy to help them put their new songs onto disc -- if the band can pony up the recording budget. Kudlow's sister, who clearly believes in her brother's talent, lends him the money to make the album, but Kudlow and Reiner are at each others' throats through much of the recording, and friends and family openly express their skepticism about Anvil's future, especially after the band's magnum opus is rejected by every label in the land.
More than a few critics have unimaginatively compared Anvil! to This Is Spinal Tap, mainly because they both deal with aging rockers on the wrong side of success, but while Spinal Tap was played for laughs, Anvil! is a slice of real life that's sometimes very funny, but only if it's not happening to you. Director Gervasi has enjoyed some success as a screenwriter, but he couldn't write two characters like Kudlow and Reiner; they bounce off one another like the lifelong friends they are, and even when they argue, there's a playful side to Kudlow that can't help but come out. Nonetheless, these men also have a bond that goes beyond friendship or family -- they're like two old soldiers still on the battlefield, determined to tough it out until either victory or death. Though the litany of missed trains, poorly attended gigs, and clueless club owners that is their European tour is frequently hilarious (it's hard not to laugh at the notion of Anvil headlining a metal-fest in Transylvania), Gervasi doesn't shy away from the very real pain and frustration of two middle-aged guys, losing their hair and the patience of their loved ones, who are still reaching out for stardom only to see it move further back. When Kudlow's and Reiner's families talk about the band, they display a range of sadness, resignation, and anger at the way fate has treated them, and how they refuse to walk away from an ambition that has treated them so shabbily. In time, it becomes clear that Anvil aren't asking for stardom so much as the opportunity to do something that gives their life meaning and satisfaction, and an acknowledgement that their dream wasn't just a folly. In a strange and often funny way, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a movie about the bonds of friendship and the calling of the artist, and if in this case the artist is an overexcited guy with big hair who plays guitar solos using a marital aid, that doesn't make the tale any less compelling.
In 1981, Canadian heavy metal band Anvil released their first album, Hard 'n' Heavy, which earned them a potent reputation among discerning headbangers and established them as one of the pioneering acts of the speed metal movement. Anvil had a loyal following in their native Canada and they shared stages with some of the biggest names in heavy rock, but the lucky break that would have elevated them to real stardom never came, and legal troubles helped to derail the group's career in the mid-'80s. Years later, the likes of Metallica and Slayer would cite Anvil as a key influence, but lead vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner struggled to keep the band alive, recording new material for tiny independent labels and trying to organize club tours as they juggled day jobs, families, and adult responsibilities. Documentary filmmaker Sacha Gervasi follows Kudlow and Reiner as they struggle to keep their ambitions alive despite 35 years of missing the brass ring in Anvil! The True Story of Anvil, which paints a sympathetic but warts-and-all portrait of the unexpected consequences of the rock & roll dream. Anvil! received its American premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.