by TOM NIXON
If heavy metal’s outsider philosophy primarily involves confronting and romanticizing reality no matter how harsh it may be, then Anvil may not just be among the foremost legends of the Canadian underground scene but, with their unquenchable enthusiasm and never-say-die attitude in the face of constant disappointment, also embody an entire genre and the sub-culture worshiping at its altar.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil maps the many trials and tribulations of a band who never quite made it big, despite serving as inspiration for the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax; front-runners for the ‘80s explosion into thrash. Praised at the beginning of the film as “getting the ball rolling” and heralded by stars like Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Lemmy of Motorhead, Anvil’s early material has always been highly respected in many underground circles, but it seems that ball left them coughing in the dust. Departing on its biggest tour for 20 years the band, with founding members Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner now in their 50s with wives and kids, temporarily leave their minimum wage jobs and struggle across Europe to play at cramped half-empty venues, only to get screwed over by tight-assed managers and miss the train home.
It’s such a ridiculous comedy of errors that the band’s failure seems written in the stars, but whilst spirits are often dampened, they’re never broken. Onward they push once more, this time attempting to record album number 13 with dreams of success still aflame. As vocalist Lips’ family bemoans the difficult life he’s inflicted upon himself for the sake of his band (dropping out of school and living in relative poverty, depending at one point on a large loan from his sister), it becomes clear that the main reason he wants “to somehow get some place in this God-forsaken crazy business” is to validate the sacrifices he’s made, for his family as much as for himself. That, and a belief that his band is on a journey yet to reach its destination, a journey towards banging the heads of metalheads the world over and forging the legendary reputation that he believes the music deserves.
Though Anvil… is in some ways a relatively conventional, sentimental story of a small fish trying to conquer a big sea, there’s something poignant about the way mortality looms large over the band’s struggles. Money problems, in-fighting (Lips and Reiner might as well be married) and other issues don’t help matters but Anvil’s greatest enemy is the clock. Reiner has a painting of his Anvil drum set on his wall, one he painted to show what would be left behind when he’s gone.
But this is a band who will make the best of whatever hand life throws at them, be it through reveling in Spinal Tap-esque, sometimes Spinal Tap-influenced, absurdity (memorable scenes include the band visiting Stonehenge after a particularly intense fight, singing their first ever song “Thumb Hang” in a diner, and playing a set for a half-bemused half-delighted wedding reception), or with the help of a supportive family, or just through raw dedication and enthusiasm for playing the music they love with people they love, for people who love it too. They insist “there’s always a way,” and they seem to appreciate the occasional perfect moment more than any hugely successful band could, because every one is so hard earned. As Lips puts it, “it went drastically wrong, but at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on.”
It’s easy not to take Lips and his ambitions particularly seriously, an old geezer clinging passionately to boyhood glory days of prancing around a Japanese stage with a guitar and a dildo, but his sacrifices are very real, and there’s universality in his and Reiner’s remarkably earnest mixture of fear and hope. They speak of their dreams and experiences with a melancholy twinkle in the eye, and you can sense how they ache to grasp a small portion of what must have once seemed a vast future thronging with potential, before, as their wives brutally suggest in the film’s most deflating interview, “it’s over.” Yet the two of them also appreciate how lucky they are to have these memories, a loving family to share them with, and the opportunity to play in front of even a hundred adoring people; notice how Lips seems to become 20 years younger whenever he starts playing onstage. The beauty of the film isn’t just that its very existence might end up propelling a group of nice, dedicated, desperately unlucky guys towards realizing their dreams at last, but that by the end it doesn’t really seem to matter.
The DVD includes an entertaining commentary from Lips, Reiner and director Gervasi, deleted scenes, and a long interview with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich impressing upon viewers the sheer depth of Anvil’s influence upon the early ‘80s metal scene.
New releases this week: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Nothing Like the Holidays, Orphan, Whatever Works