The opening minutes of Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil tell the story of a musical disappearing act that seems way too hilarious, too outrageous to be true. Grainy ’80s concert footage from a Japanese heavy metal festival shows a group of four Canadian metalheads, with giant hair and elaborate leather-buckle outfits, powering through a song called “Metal on Metal.” Then the group’s frontman, a guy in ripped-fishnet gloves called Lips, pulls out a floppy dildo and starts to use it as a makeshift guitar pick. The crowd goes nuts.
Then we see an all-star gallery of interviews with better-remembered metal players—from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich to Lemmy from Motörhead to Slash—all of whom consider those Canadians, who go by the name of Anvil, some of the genre’s biggest pioneers. These guys are unabashed in their admiration, talking with glee about hearing the 1982 album Metal on Metal for the first time and all pausing, momentarily, to wonder why Anvil never made it to the next level. Slash figures it’s because everyone just ripped them off, then “left them for dead.”
But little do they know that Anvil is still together—at least, the core duo of Lips (aka Steve Kudlow) and drummer/childhood friend Robb Reiner is intact, along with two younger replacements. Not only that, they’re still going strong, writing new material and squeezing in gigs between their day jobs and family commitments, and their new fan-turned-manager has just e-mailed them to say she’s set them up on a month-long European comeback tour.
Okay, that’s as far as I can go without invoking This Is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner’s iconic 1984 mockumentary is on the tip of the film’s tongue from the very beginning, and even though it’s never mentioned, the parallels between the two are astonishing (beginning with the freak similarity between the names of Spinal Tap’s director and Anvil’s drummer). The costumes are the same. The decidedly unsubtle lyrics and riffs are the same. Anvil’s guitar amps literally go to 11. Whole scenes, like the one where Kudlow and Reiner sit in a restaurant and muse on the first song they wrote together—a high school ode to Spanish Inquisition torture called “Thumb Hang”—are almost carbon copies of one another. Anvil! is the best example I’ve ever seen of life imitating art; it’s simulacrum incarnate.
The other major similarity, of course, is that almost nothing goes well for Anvil. Their so-called comeback tour is a poorly managed disaster: they miss trains, get paid in goulash, are promised advance promotion that turns out to be a piece of paper taped to a door, and, to cap it off, play a 10,000-seat festival in Romania for 174 people. When they come home, they decide to borrow a big sum of money and record their new album, This Is Thirteen, with a major producer—but then they can’t sell it, Kudlow’s desperation overpowering his sales pitch with a music executive at EMI Canada.
But Gervasi is an unrepentant Anvil fan, not a satirist, and his documentary never treats the group with anything less than the utmost love and respect. For all Kudlow’s goofy guitar-playing faces, Anvil! agrees whole-heartedly with his insistence that the band is in top form; just because the musical landscape has shifted doesn’t mean that the dudes can no longer rock. Some people might take issue with Gervasi’s uncritical eye, but it has the added benefit of never lingering on images that most filmmakers would milk for just a little bit of cruel pathos. A scene where Kudlow runs amok at an English festival, tripping over himself to say hello to his own metal heroes, could easily be played for laughs. Instead, Gervasi welcomes the audience into sharing his enthusiasm—you feel bad for even noticing Kudlow’s bald patch atop his shoulder-length curls.
After a redemptive final sequence where the band returns to Japan, we’re reminded with a postscript that Anvil has gone the Radiohead route, self-releasing their new album on the web. While you’re there, why not pick up some of their back catalogue? Metal on Metal, Backwaxed, Forged in Fire, Hard N Heavy, Absolutely No Alternative, Back to Basics, and Plugged in Permanent are all still in print.
(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, June 4, 2009)