Rock of Ages
The unknown legends of heavy metal
by Jason Blair
ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL: Directed by Sacha Gervasi. Cinematography, Christopher Soos. Music, David Norland. Starring Robb Reiner and Steve Kudlow. Abramorama, 2009. Unrated. 90 minutes.
Steve “Lips” Kudlow is no garden-variety optimist. For thirty years, Lips has been belting out vocals for the metal band Anvil, a group whose recent gigs include Lips’ 50th birthday party and the wedding of Anvil’s bassist. For a brief period in the 1980s, Anvil made a dent in the Canadian thrash metal scene, playing the role of upstart northern rockers to the likes of Anthrax, Metallica and Slayer. Instead of soaring to Rock God heights, however, Anvil faded into oblivion, steadily recording a dozen albums (with predictable titles like Forged in Fire) to an ever dwindling fanbase. Anyone but Lips would have cut the canine locks and hung up the platform boots years ago, but Lips is the kind of unbreakable positivist that can utter the following while sounding hopeful: “It could never be worse than what it already is. If it never got better, that’s the way it is.” Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a documentary about the band’s breakneck attempt to recover their audience via a new tour, album and record deal. Like all great music documentary films, from Don’t Look Back to I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, nothing goes according to plan.
With echoes of The Wrestler and This is Spinal Tap, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is about success in the act of failure. It’s about perseverance driven by enthusiasm so pure it won’t countenance humiliation. Anvil! is the type of film that makes you ashamed you gave up playing piano — or surfing or horseback riding, for that matter — simply because the odds were stacked against you. What makes Anvil! so absorbing is how gently it reveals Lips’ true occupation, which is the care and feeding of his hope. A man with more passion than skill, Lips is constantly course-correcting in the wake of steady failure, his adjustments as awkward and complex as those of a bird in a wind tunnel. Lips’ partner in the Anvil enterprise is Robb Reiner, the drummer and co-founder of Anvil. Just as every rose has its thorn, so every Anvil needs a blunt object, a role to which Reiner willing submits. That is, until Lips insults him one time too many. Like Lennon and McCartney or Page and Plant, their creative relationship works until it doesn’t, at which point Anvil! reveals Lips and Reiner as the old married couple they so steadfastly resemble.
There’s a wonderful buildup in Anvil! as a Romanian fan books their first European tour in decades. At one stop, the mayor of Transylvania is rumored to be en route. He never shows. Venues with a capacity of 10,000 see fewer than 200 metalheads come out in support of Anvil. Then, another break: Lips’ sister loans them the money to cut a proper album with a proper producer in an actual studio. You know what’s going to happen, of course: You’ve never heard of Anvil, and you’re about as likely to buy their record as you are to pierce your nipples. But despite the inevitable, the band finally experiences a moment that is lovely and far-reaching and joyful. The ending is tremendous. Director Sacha Gervasi, co-writer of the The Terminal and a longtime fan of Anvil, takes his subject seriously, in the process creating a portrait of the artists as old men — and of failure elevated to an art form.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens Friday, June 5, at the Bijou.