Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

The hardest thing about watching “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is convincing yourself that this is a real documentary about a real band, rather than a parody. The similarities to “This is Spinal Tap” are absolutely uncanny. This is a story of aging rockers who delude themselves that their day is not done. Their attempt at a European tour is a depressing shambles. They speak in bizarre non-sequiturs: Fan - “Why aren’t you playing better venues?” Drummer - “I can answer that in two words, no, three, ‘We haven’t got good management.’” Strangest of all, Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner. Who was the director of “This is Spinal Tap?” Wait for it….Rob Reiner. The film really seems for a while like a straight-faced put-on, an inside joke for rock documentary fans, but from what I can tell, the band Anvil and the story are real.

Drummer Robb Reiner and Guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow started Anvil in the ‘70’s, and the band was one of the vanguard of the metal movement that peaked with bands like Metallica. Much as the New York Dolls are considered a lesser known proto-punk band, Anvil was apparently the cutting edge of heavy metal in the early ‘80’s. This documentary features testimonials from members of Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax about how Anvil influenced them. The band never quite broke into the big time, however, probably because they are Canadian. I’ll bet they were notorious for cancelling gigs to go eat fries and gravy.

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil” finds Robb and Lips working menial jobs in their home of Ontario, living for the occasional tiny gig, turning fifty, and still chasing that elusive rock and roll dream. A European fan named Tiziana writes to offer to manage them on a tour of Europe, where they are supposedly still big stars. That turns into the farce mentioned earlier. Then they rekindle a relationship with their old producer, Chris “CT” Tsangarides. They borrow enough money to have CT produce their thirteenth album, “This is Thirteen,” but ultimately fail to get any record labels interested in their self-produced effort. And so it goes, a constant series of ups and downs, with the ups being illusory, and the downs representing reality.

The thing is, the story could be depressing, but somehow Lips’s childlike optimism carries us along and keeps his band-mates going, from one fading glimmer of hope to the next. Robb is more of a realist, and he frequently threatens to give up the dream and quit. Lips comes across as something of an idiot savant, or maybe just an idiot, but it is nice to see these guys’ wives and some of their family support them. In one heartwarming scene, Lips’s sister loans him a sizable sum to help produce their album. In another scene, Rob’s wife chastises his sister for suggesting that he should give up playing. Still sporting ‘80’s hair and wearing a rock t-shirt, Mrs. Reiner says, “We love the music and the bands. This is just what we do.”

“This is just what we do.” To me, that is the theme of this film. Many would look at the guys in Anvil and shake their heads at the folly of aging rockers still trying to “make it.” The thing is, what else are these guys going to do? Some people watch TV in the evenings, or go bowling, but when the guys in Anvil get off work, they pick up their instruments and play. Lips might seem deluded to some, but I think he is actually very wise. If you are lucky enough to have a dream, you should hold onto it. In this life, it isn’t achieving your dream that is the greatest thing; it is having a dream to chase.

Lips sums it up quite well himself:

“For all this horrible shit that I gotta go through, I’ve got Anvil that gives me my happiness.
The way I look at it, really, is that it could never be worse than what it already is. If it never got better, that’s the way that it is. It could only get better.
On the other hand, if it did get worse, at least this time, after all’s said and done, I can say that All has been said and done, instead of ‘I’ve left a lot of things undone.’”

An interesting post-script is that due to the critical and popular success of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” the band has enjoyed a massive resurgence. Heavy Metal isn’t exactly en vogue now, but there are still enough fans around that Anvil is now playing to packed houses and earning enough, finally, to quit their day jobs.

5 stars

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