Back in the late '70s, before Guitar Hero III or Rock of Love 2 or even VH1, a jolly Canadian guitarist named Steve "Lips" Kudlow formed a thrash band with his high school best friend, drummer Robb Reiner (no relation to Meathead). They became Anvil, a four-piece speed-metal circus that toured with soon-to-be cash-cow longhairs like Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and the Scorpions, and reveled in tongue-and-cheek cock-rock clichés. (Exemplary song titles include "Metal on Metal," "Hair Pie," and "Butter-Bust Jerky.") Onstage, Lips wore leather pants, a bondage harness, and a studded dog collar; he also used a dildo as a bottleneck slide to play his Flying V. But more than a decade into this schtick, a show promoter went apeshit on Lips when unsuspecting concertgoers complained they'd been offended by this porno prop and demanded their money back. That was when Lips, out of genuine respect for would-be fans, decided to retire the dildo.
That might be the only thing the 53-year-old frontman has retired in his entire life, and this awe-inspiring persistence is now the focal point of Sacha Gervasi's phenomenal rockumentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Even though Anvil never amounted to anything more than "the demigods of Canadian metal" (which is sort of like being the Slam Dunk Champ of Chippewa Falls), Lips and Robb decided early on that their sole objective was "to rock forever," and at all costs. Gervasi, a British screenwriter (The Terminal) who'd roadied for Anvil as a teenager, reunites with Kudlow and Reiner as fiftysomethings in Toronto. They're both married with sons, toiling away at dead-end jobs by day, headlining strip-mall sports bars by night, and all the while still saying things in earnest like, "Until we become a real commodity, this is what you deal with."
The same blind faith that has held Anvil together for three decades guides them, in the first half of Gervasi's film, through their biggest tour in 20 years to Europe. Orchestrated by then-guitarist Ivan Hurd's lady friend, the five-week trek turns out to be a logistical nightmare, seemingly planned by "a demented monkey throwing darts," as Gervasi recently described it. They miss trains in Sweden, get lost in Prague, and perform in Transylvania to 174 people in a 10,000-capacity arena. The tour is such a perfectly executed comedy of errors that, during the filming, one of Gervasi's cameramen locked the director in a room and demanded to know whether Lips and Robb were secretly actors.
Rockers in their 50s going for it one last time — if the basic premise sounds familiar, it should. "Spinal Tap was our Trojan horse," Gervasi, accompanied by the band, explains during a recent press jag at the swank Bowery Hotel. "The drummer's called Robb Reiner. They wrote a song called 'Thumb Hang.' Lips plays his guitar with a dildo. We're dead, like, 11 times. So we may as well use it to our advantage." So Anvil! became part intentional homage: The band visits Stonehenge on its European tour, there's an amp that goes to 11, and Lips and Robb sing the first tune they ever wrote in a diner. "We love that movie," Lips adds, looking characteristically frizzy and leathered. "It's us — in fake."
But Lips and Robb are so very, very real. Robb's sister, Droid, likens their relationship to Siamese twins, but they're more like classical cartoon-buddy foils: Laurel and Hardy without the slapstick, Jake and Elwood without the blues, Jay and Silent Bob with actual ambition. Hetero life partners, they bicker like an old married couple, and while in the studio recording their 13th album with money Lips borrowed from his sister — their last-ditch attempt at mainstream recognition — Anvil morphs from Spinal Tap to Metallica in Some Kind of Monster: Robb threatens to quit, Lips ends up crying into the camera, and everyone engages in emotionally weighted therapeutic discourse. Yet somehow, these Headbangers Ball footnotes, with their intentionally goofy groupie anthem "Show Me Your Tits," end up being far more human and likable than the Mighty Ducks.
A Hoop Dreams for heshers, Anvil! has had a happy ending offscreen. Thanks to the doc's festival-circuit acclaim, Anvil is enjoying a comeback of Mickey Rourke–like proportions. Michael Moore is a fan, as is Keanu Reeves. Slayer's manager signed the band, Coldplay's booker handles them in the U.K., and Oasis' liaison represents them in the States. VH1 has acquired the exclusive rights to air Anvil! The Story of Anvil this summer. Random House will release the Anvil book. Rock Band will soon have Anvil tracks. There's also an Anvil! soundtrack deal in the works with major-label involvement. All this before the documentary has even entered wide release. "This is the most famous we've ever been — ever — in our whole 30-year history," Robb admits, awestruck. "With what's coming, with all this, I think the dildo will return."