Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The name of heavy metal group Anvil's drummer, Robb Reiner, is only the first of many connections to director Rob Reiner's seminal rock-mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. That classic came out in 1984, the same year that Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens upon, when the band was at the top of the world. That was then, and this is now. Anvil! is at times unbearable, a portrait of a band who never really made it, still plugging away 20 years after everyone forgot about them. That the film ultimately emerges as a celebration of the artistic spirit, then, is a testament to the skill of director Sacha Gervasi, an admitted megafan of the group in question.
Gervasi is an accomplished screenwriter, having penned The Terminal for Steven Spielberg, but he confesses that, when he met the group in 1982, he introduced himself as "England's number-one Anvil fan." Ergo, it's only natural that he would choose the group as the subject of his first directorial gig. For a band that few contemporary metal fans could identify despite their impact on the genre, Gervasi managed to accumulate an impressive amount of footage and critical evaluation arguing for the group's importance in the history of metal, with thrash gods Lemmy, Scott Ian and Lars Ulrich (among others) discussing how Anvil lit a fire under all of them to step up their game.
However, Gervasi's obvious love of the band does not blind him to the harsh reality of the band's modern existence. Where the film opens with a massive metal festival in Japan, with names like Bon Jovi and the Scorpions co-headlining with the group. Those bands went on to megastardom, but Anvil never really took off. Gervasi cuts from that moment of triumph in 1984 to the stark winter of Ontario, back in the hometown of the band's two founding members. Lead singer/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow works for a catering company delivering food, while Reiner spends his days breaking bricks. They hate their jobs and their co-workers have never heard of their band, but by night they come alive, slamming at local dives as though they just formed and were cutting their teeth on the club circuit.
The sad fact of their touring life comes right out of Spinal Tap: the lads ship off to Europe, seemingly a victorious return to the land where metal still reigns supreme. They even open up for a festival in Sweden. Backstage however, it all starts to come undone. They try to reconnect with old colleagues -- Michael Schenker of the Scorpions, Ted Nugent -- but hardly anyone remembers them. (The few who do, though, re-affirm what the musicians in talking heads say throughout the film: that Anvil were the rockinest band that never made it). One of the tag-alongs is dating the manager, who constantly gets mixed up and brings the band to the station just as their train pulls out. They arrive to one gig late but still play, but the club owner refuses to pay because of their tardiness. A lawyer gives them his business card, and advises them to fire their manager and get proper representation.
What originally seemed like an impressive tour, promising 1500 Euros for each, ends with the band fighting over stresses and returning from "vacation" to their day jobs. Apart from Spinal Tap, there's an unwitting nod to The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II in the form of the dreaded mother of the metal musician. Mrs. Kudlow isn't nearly the specter of spiritual and physical decay that defined the mother WASP's Chris Holmes, who sat beside the pool her son drunkenly splashed around in like a visage of Death waiting to claim this decrepit soul. Still, when the kindly, proper mom shows up in a film about the hard rocking rebels, it takes the wind out of you a bit. The film's bleakest moment by far, though, is contained in a scene wherein Anvil shows up for a gig they believe will be a packed house, to be treated only to a single fan rocking out (while sitting down, no less).
But damn it, these guys will never stop. When Lips gets back from the European tour, he acknowledges the problems, but is exceedingly grateful for the experience and even has kind words for the manager. "At least there was a tour to go wrong on," he says with the perfect balance of optimism and fatalism. As the band frets over raising the sizable fee to hire the big time producer who produced their seminal '80s work, Lips gives an impassioned speech to the camera about how he, Reiner and their other two bandmates all face big debts and compounded mortgages, but somehow they'll find a way to keep plugging away.
That dogged, some would say foolish, refusal to quit, that fleeting moment of happiness that can only come from perforation regardless of whether the venue hosts 100,000 screaming Japanese metalheads or just a single headbanger in an empty bar, makes Anvil!'s closest cinematic analogue not This is Spinal Tap but the 2008 Mickey Rourke vehicle The Wrestler. Sure, they should give up the dream, but who are we to decide when someone should stop doing what they love? Everyone close to them identifies Kudlow and Reiner as brothers, which of course means they fight like brothers. But when tensions explode in the recording studio -- this is a film about musicians, remember -- it ends up bringing out their bond more distinctly than any descriptions of their friendship ever could.
Gervasi's direction throughout is sturdy if perhaps too rote: the gentle piano soundtrack he plays over some shots is too shameless an attempt to project a mood onto us when the icy calm of the band's home base in suburban Toronto and the shots of band members arriving too late for trains do that just fine on their own. He also could stand to study the art of editing, or at least find an editor who's good enough that he can get by without having to supervise; too many happy moments suddenly careen into hard times without the steps that lead the first scenario to the second, and I found myself scratching my head at times wondering if everyone in the band was bi-polar.
But the director also lets some humor slip in without being mean toward the band. To raise that album money, Lips takes a second job as a telemarketer (adding to the ignominy is the fact that his boss is a massive fan), but quits after a day because he's simply too polite to force product on people. And it's OK to laugh at some of the darker moments because the band takes it in such stride that you're simply following suit by chuckling it off.
Despite Gervasi's inexperience and the somber nature of much of the film, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is one of the most inspiring and uplifting films about contemporary music ever made. Normally, artist evaluations are limited to the fringe geniuses of art and music (Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, Crumb) or a megastar like Dylan provided the artist is mysterious enough. For someone to make such an affecting movie about a bunch of leather-clad dorks grinding away with a never-changing formula of riffs and songs about sex, masculine actions, or both, is just precious. (I have to admit, my head bobbed to more than one song played during the film). So, yeah, Anvil might not be able to say that their glory days are behind them because they never had any in the first place, but by the end it's nearly impossible not to feel a sense of validation and personal triumph. And besides, take one look at these dedicated cats and tell me their existence is half as pathetic as Mötley Crüe's Vince Neill doing the Chicken Dance at a state fair or going on The Surreal Life to supplement the millions these guys never had in the first place.