Anvil looks at metal’s greatest never-was

by Glen Baity

Anvil looks at metal’s greatest never-was

Most bands, if they’re around long enough, have that “Behind the Music” arc in their story: 1) rocket to fame, 2) high life, 3) crash, 4) redemption. There are always variables, but very, very few bands stay stuck on step one for 30 years.

In fact, there might only be one. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (opening Thursday at the Carousel) tells its tale. The documentary opens with footage of a massive metal festival in Japan in 1984. All the genre heavies are represented: Scorpions. Whitesnake. Bon Jovi. There’s only one band that didn’t go on to megastardom: Anvil, representing Ontario, playing their minor hit “Metal on Metal.” But on that day, any outside observer would think all of these bands were equally huge. The crowd laps it up as Anvil frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow gyrates in bondage gear and a leather codpiece, playing up the cartoon sexuality of the whole affair and grinning like a 25-year-old with a lifetime of fame and fortune in front of him. What comes next isn’t exactly surprising, since the sequence is cut with interviews from genre icons — Slash, Lemmy, et al — pondering why the band never made it. But it’s still jarring to watch this same guy, 25 years older but with the same shock of curly hair, showing up at his job as a school lunch deliveryman. Despite everything, he still has that same goofy smile. This is the indomitable Lips, who alongside his best friend and drummer Robb Reiner has spent the past three decades reaching for that brass ring. They have recorded album after poorly-received album, played shows to dwindling crowds of metal die-hards and kept rocking even as they’ve grown up, started families and acquired mortgages. The Story of Anvil follows the band for 75 harrowing minutes as they embark on a troubled European tour, struggle against poverty and try to make their 13 special. You don’t need to ate director Sacha packs years of joy, into a lean, inviting captures the core of the band in some of its most unguarded moments: screaming at each other in the recording studio, roughing up a club owner who refuses to pay up, suffer- world’s crappiest bar. Of course, you could find similar scenes by tailing any rock band, but the personal history is what makes Anvil’s story poignant. These are, at the bottom of it all, two old friends who know way too much about each other. They fight like brothers, finish each others’ sentences and play with the kind of effortless precision that takes years to develop. If you don’t love them within 10 minutes, you’re made of stone. But Gervasi’s film is so captivating because it catches its subjects at a pivotal moment. Now 50 years old, yesterday’s Next Big Thing takes a serious self-assessment and asks: How long can we keep this dream alive? The film has generated a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, every bit of it justified. It’s tempting to call Anvil a real-life Spinal Tap, but that’s not exactly right. For starters, don’t call this a comeback – Lips and Robb never made it, so they don’t have anything to come back from. And sure, there’s something inherently hilarious about th album (!) something truly love metal to appreci- Gervasi’s film, which despair and frustration package. His camera ing the indignity of playing to seven vaguely interested patrons in the hair metal, but these guys aren’t oblivious to how silly all that ’80s excess was. Gervasi finds plenty of humor in his time with the band, but he doesn’t play Anvil for chumps. Good thing, too, since there’s nothing funny about the level of dedication Lips and Robb have to their dream. They’ve battled back failure for more than half their lives, and it’s frankly humbling to watch them keep going, naysayers be damned. How many people would give up after enduring far, far less? Anvil is a lesson in perseverance — foolhardy perseverance, arguably, but awe-inspiring nevertheless. Lips and Robb still dream of signing to a major label and getting a second shot at fame, a goal that imbues the film with an inevitable sadness. The Story of Anvil will undoubtedly raise their profile, but they’ll never be as famous as M’tley Cr’e circa 1987. The world has changed, the music industry is fundamentally broken and they’re too long in the tooth to be huge with the kids. But this film gives Lips and Robb enough small victories to leave a big smile on your face. It’s destined to be among the great music documentaries, a film that really examines the nature of friendship, rock n’ roll and the people who can’t live without either.

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