An old-school metal band's dramatic epic is about to hit movie theaters. This is a group that started in the early '80s and influenced rock legends like Slash, Lemmy from Motörhead, and Scott Ian of Anthrax. It's an act that still tours around the globe. And these are musicians who allowed filmmakers complete backstage access — which means cameras rolled during embarrassingly juvenile tizzies, including ones where giant man tears were shed.
No, I'm not talking about Metallica. This is the story of Anvil, perhaps the most stubborn heavy metal band in history. After 30 years of recording and touring, its name is still unknown to most rock fans. The briefly famous group has to grab club owners by their shirt collars in order to get paid, misses its trains on European tours, and gets shot down by A&R guys at major labels because the "landscape has changed." Anvil is obscure, Canadian, and led by two family men in their 50s who borrow obscene amounts of money to hire famous producers for albums that will never get distribution. They also refuse to quit playing music. All of this makes them perfect subjects for another Behind the Music episode. It also, surprisingly, makes the movie created in their honor one of the sweetest rock 'n' roll stories produced.
It would've been so easy to turn the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil into a real-life Spinal Tap. There's so much comedy in the band's tragedies. Director Sacha Gervasi has the camera rolling for every Anvil blunder — and there are many, from the group performing for 174 people at a venue that holds 10,000 to listening as the drummer, Robb Reiner, casually relays the fact that singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow regularly rips his gold drumstick necklace from around his neck in fits of anger. Gervasi has a wealth of punch lines to choose from, but he's judicious in using them, editing them in subtly for maximum impact. He doesn't go the predictable route and skewer this cult band for continuing three decades after its 15 minutes of fame ended. Instead he offers a more universal narrative. Anvil! touches on the difficulty of giving up on a dream you've invested with your life. It's an identifiable sentiment, regardless of whether your props come, as Anvil's have, from an overly made-up member of Twisted Sister at a music festival.
Anvil! begins by giving viewers the band's context. It shows the group playing a huge concert in the '80s alongside household names like the Scorpions and Bon Jovi. There are interviews with heavy metal gods discussing the importance of Anvil. The Toronto act's early recordings, including 1982's Metal on Metal, apparently hold high places in metal history. But after its third record, the band fell off the radar, for reasons no one in the film can really explain. Lips now makes a living working for an elementary school catering company, while Reiner works in construction.
It takes a pretty strong self-image to be the everyman in your day job and then be the invisible rock star at night. But Lips and Reiner are such teddy bears, so naive in their drive, that you wonder how they've managed to keep the tiny Anvil bubble afloat without the cold, cruel world coming in for a pop. One answer: These men are total metal lifers. This is made obvious when Lips is backstage at a festival Anvil plays, giddily sprinting after childhood idols to gush about his affection for their work. Never mind that half these musicians don't seem to know who the hell he is.
The group's strength also stems from the deep bond between Lips and Reiner. They met as adolescents — and, inspired by a history class on the Spanish Inquisition, wrote their first song together, "Thumb Hang." Now on the other side of 50, the two men talk about one another like brothers — and fight as though they're still 14.
They get into the same arguments repeatedly. Lips is a powder keg of reactive frustration, and cries often. Reiner gets sick of the drama and being broke. He calmly threatens to walk away, Lips sniffles out a sincere apology, and they go on, like war veterans whose love for one another surpasses anything romantic or familial. Unlike the whine sessions in Some Kind of Monster, where Metallica's group therapy made the musicians seem really obnoxious, Anvil's figureheads project nothing but the deepest sincerity in their breakdowns. Despite the fights, there's a real kindness in the way they treat one another. Add in the band's underdog status, and these tiffs become strangely moving — when, of course, they aren't totally hilarious, which is often the case.
At last Sunday's "Anvil Experience" party at Slim's, fans were treated to a screening of the film followed by a live performance by the band. The group had suffered another blow in recent years. As the documentary's epilogue explained, the rhythm guitarist quit: Anvil is now a power trio. But the fans in the crowd throwing devil horns didn't seem to care. Lips, a black anvil inked on his right arm, moved his rubbery mouth around with excitement when he wasn't calling for the crowd's applause. The band played a total of four songs — one of which was little more than a drum solo, and another the Anvil-anointed "national anthem of heavy metal," titled "Metal on Metal" — before walking offstage for an encore.
How did they sound? Let's face it — Anvil's songs are dated. There are better metal bands out there. And they need to replace that rhythm guitarist. But watching Anvil! makes you root for these guys nonetheless — if not for the music, then for their indomitable fighting spirit, and the humility with which they've taken their lot. (Lips in particular finds the good in everything, including a booking agent who botches their European tour.)
In an era where young bands act jaded after one round of blog buzz, it's refreshing to hear from musicians who spend their entire lives taking nothing for granted. Thirty years of playing metal ain't nothing to laugh at — even if, as Anvil! proves, it provides plenty of moments to laugh with.