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Anvil!: The Story of Anvil
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by Collin Souter

"This one goes to 11"
5 stars

(SCREENED AT THE 44TH CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL) To call the documentary Anvil! The True Story of Anvil a real-life Spinal Tap would be to short-change its accomplishments. True, the movie’s parallels become obvious after a while. The two main members talk in a diner about the songs they wrote when they were younger. Their lyrics (at least the ones mentioned in this movie) are sophomoric at best. The number 11, Stonehenge and the Japanese all make appearances. Even the drummer’s name is Robb Reiner. So, yes, it’s impossible not to think about the Godfather of mockumentaries when watching Anvil, but likewise, it’s also hard not to laugh out loud or to be moved by the story of these two guys who are forced to lean on one another in times of struggle, even when they can’t stand each other. But of course, you’re probably wondering, just who the heck is Anvil anyway?

If you’re not a connoisseur of the heavy metal genre (and I’m not), you probably don’t know. Anvil started out in the early ‘80s. They’ve toured with the likes of Bon Jovi, Guns n’ Roses and Metallica. Both Slash (of GnR) and Lars Ulrich (of Metallica) appear at the beginning of the film to express that when they saw Anvil, their attitude towards their music changed. Anvil had an influence over them. The sad turn of events, of course, saw Guns n’ Roses and Metallica becoming much more revered and famous than Anvil ever would be. To this day, Anvil remains in obscurity. The two main members of the band, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, still live in Canada and are forced to take menial jobs (such as telemarketing) to make ends meet.

“Things can’t really get any worse,” Lips tells us at the opening of the film. Both men are in their 50’s and have steadily released 12 albums over their 20+ year “career” (all of which have an anvil on the cover somewhere). Now, it’s time to make #13 and it has to be the make-or-break album for Anvil. Otherwise, why keep trying? But before they go into the studio, they get booked on a European festival tour where they’re plagued with low audience turn-out, cheapskate club owners and missed transportation. They come home with less money in their pockets than when they left.

Yet, they keep going. Lips and Robb are possessed by that working-class, indomitable spirit that reminded me of Mark Borchardt in American Movie. They try because their livelihood depends on it, not because of a bitter dispute with record companies (although that does lurk beneath the surface) or for fame and riches. The declarative title of this forthcoming album—“This is 13”—could stand as a possible reminder to the rock journalists and metal fans who have maybe forgotten about them. But why would a band stake so much on such an unlucky number?

It hardly matters at this point. Both Lips and Robb have long-suffering wives who dreamed of living the rock and roll lifestyle as wife-groupies. Both still wear their hair as though the dream lives on. We also meet the band’s tour manager whose heart is in the right place, but who can’t quite keep the itineraries or the bookings organized enough to ensure the band makes a little money.

Director Sacha Gervasi and editors Andrew Dickler and Jeff Renfroe probably could have just filmed the disastrous tour and made a movie out of that alone, but they have thankfully stayed the course in following these two dreamers to whatever bitter end may lie ahead. In the process, we have a process documentary and a relationship movie. The process gives these two guys hope, since they’ve somehow managed to raise enough money to wrangle one of metal’s top producers to help them record the album before they try to sell it to major labels. The relationship we witness is a curious one. Lips needs everything around him to be encouraging and positive in order to keep forging ahead. But Robb’s sometimes stoic demeanor gets to be too much for Lips and the clashing of the two personalities ensues.

The movie gracefully achieves a tough balancing act. It’s easy to laugh at heavy metal guys and the filmmakers could have settled on a condescending tone throughout. It also could have veered into over-long self-seriousness, much in the same way the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster did. But these are people we actually care a lot about. They’re likable, funny and worth getting to know. When we laugh and wince as much as we do in the first half-hour of the movie, it’s because of the situations, not because of the people in them. These aren’t guys who can afford to have a psychiatrist in the recording studio on a daily basis. They are their own doctors and when things fall apart, we want to see them to pick up the pieces themselves.

Anvil! Deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other great, recent rocks docs, such as DiG!, Shut Up and Sing and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The movie and its subjects make their case about record labels, the industry and artist recognition without being whiney or preachy. They know the wisdom that if your art has any value at all, it will be discovered and/or revered by someone. Anvil has worked hard to maintain the small fanbase it has and the most any band can hope for these days is to have a solid internet-based following. This movie can only help their cause, but of course, it, like the band, has to be discovered first. I may not be buying any Anvil albums myself, but I was more than happy to have the song Metal or Metal going through my head long after the movie ended.

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originally posted: 11/03/08 11:18:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2009 Florida Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/13/09 Jim Could VH1 promote this a little more? I keep forgetting it's out. 5 stars
5/17/09 matt OH GODZIRRA!!! damn good movie 5 stars
9/01/08 Joe Excellent documentary that is sadly overlooked and underseen. 5 stars
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  DVD: 06-Oct-2009


  DVD: 06-Oct-2009

Directed by
  Sacha Gervasi

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