Some have gone on record as saying that the heavy metal documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” is one of the funniest movies they’ve ever seen. From here, that is sheer schadenfraude. To find it hilarious, one would have to take joy in the band’s misfortune (of which there is a truckload), and anyone who does that is a) missing the point, and b) seriously messed up. There are some funny moments, yes, but the movie is more tragedy than comedy. If anything, “Anvil” is the mother of all underdog movies, and if you’re not cheering for these guys by movie’s end, then you simply have no soul.
Our first glance of the band is not unlike the first look at Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler.” The band is at their early ‘80s peak, playing a festival in Japan with the Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi (and, if legend is to be believed, blowing them off the stage). Lemmy from Motorhead, Scott Ian of Anthrax, Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Slash are on record singing the band’s praises, and this makes the next part so heartbreaking; we cut to Anvil lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow at his current day job, as a delivery driver for a children’s catering company. However, Lips and drummer Robb Reiner have not given up the dream. They still play Anvil gigs when they can, and maintain a devoted, if small, fan base in their native Canada. One day they receive a call from a Swiss promoter named Tiziana who wants to book them for a European tour, promising them $1,500 Euro per gig. The tour starts off promisingly with a gig at the Sweden Rock Festival, but the tour quickly unravels from there. A missed train leads to a club owner that refuses to pay them (though the owner doesn’t stop them from playing), and by the tour’s end, they’re all dead broke and sleeping in train stations. Lips and Robb, however, refuse to quit. They dig up the money to record with Chris Tsangarides (check your metal record liner notes), but the long-simmering tensions between Lips and Robb threaten to do them in. And, in “Spinal Tap” tradition, the band’s guitarist Ivan Hurd begins dating the manager.
By the band’s account, they kicked ass on stage at the Sweden Rock Festival. Backstage, however, is another story. The footage of Lips interacting with various old-school rock gods (Michael Schenker, Carmine Appice) is like something straight out of “This Is Spinal Tap,” filled with awkward pauses and embarrassing attempts on Lips’ part to take a trip down memory lane with people who don’t remember him. Indeed, Lips proves to be his own worst enemy on more than one occasion, accosting the bar manager that refused to pay him, and accusing Robb of “negative energy” when Robb dares to suggest that Lips should work a little harder on his vocal tracks when putting the new album together. After a while, you finally understand that Lips’ definitions of success and respect change by the minute, and that lack of consistency is clearly playing a role in his professional life.
Despite all this, it’s hard not to root for these guys. They might be completely deluded about how the music business works today – Lips thinks the band’s new album has to be released by a major label, even though the old-school metal bands all went indie 15 years ago – but you have to admire their determination. Director Sacha Gervasi, a longtime fan and onetime roadie for the band, gives us the warts-and-all view of things, though I’m guessing that he didn’t have to try too hard to make that happen. The interviews with the family members are very revealing, in that only one relative will go on camera and say that Lips and Robb should give it up. Loving, supportive family, or enablers? You be the judge.
If Anvil doesn’t receive another ounce of good luck when it comes to resurrecting their career, they should look back at “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and take pride that they participated in something that rises above their music to provide a testament to the human spirit. That is certainly a better legacy than that of, say, Warrant, who sold the millions of records that Lips thirsted for, but are bitter bastards today. Yes, being the “Metal on Metal” guys may not have made them a fortune, but as Jani Lane will tell you, it’s a hell of a lot better than being the “Cherry Pie” guys. Now someone needs to put their back catalog up for download, so the guys can finally get some cash for their troubles.(4 / 5)
This originally ran May 20, 2009 on Bullz-Eye.com.