Even the movie's full title — "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" — gives off a rich whiff of Spinal Tap. And the obscure Canadian metal band this terrific documentary resurrects has many of the trappings of that other group of lovable losers, but all of them real — not least the demented belief that, after nearly 30 years of cruel, soul-shriveling neglect, a long-awaited Big Break is still just around the corner.
The movie opens on Anvil singer and lead guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (tap, tap, tap) in Toronto, where they now make the rent by dint of glamorless manual labor. Back in 1982, though, they were touring the world with such masters of rock as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Scorpions. They had it all — the hair-band hair, scarves and tights, Marshall stacks the size of refrigerators. Occasionally, in tribute to the sainted Jimmy Page, Kudlow would rake the strings of his Flying V with a hot-pink dildo.
More pertinently, though, Anvil were onto something new musically. As was apparent on their (relatively) celebrated second album, Metal on Metal, the group had kicked the sometimes sludgy rhythms of classic heavy metal into overdrive — anticipating by about a year the onslaught of such new-wave shredders as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. So what happened? Well, Slash — one of several famous Anvil fans who turn up here to pay homage — puts it most pithily: "Everybody just sort of ripped them off, and then left them for dead."
It's the oldest of rock stories: Anvil got screwed all around — by record labels, producers, promoters. But in defiance of every species of common sense, they never gave up. And they're still at it. (Kudlow and Reiner are the only remaining original members, but the group's current lineup has been together for more than a decade.)
This is where Sacha Gervasi entered the picture. Gervasi is a screenwriter by trade (he worked on Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal"), but way back in the day he briefly slaved as an Anvil roadie. Reestablishing contact with the boys, he discovered that their weary career was perking up again. As the movie gets underway, they learn that a diehard Euro fan has booked them onto a five-week Continental tour, from Sweden, Spain and Denmark to Finland, Croatia and Poland — and beyond. (Exulting in advance over one of the more exotic engagements that's been penciled in, Lips enthuses, "Even the mayor of Transylvania's supposed to show up.") Need it be said that the tour is a disaster — missed trains, chiseling club owners, gigs performed in front of six, maybe seven people? The band makes not a cent. (Although they do encounter some illustrious old pals who are still on the road, like ex-Scorpion Michael Schenker — "The Beethoven of lead guitar players," Kudlow sighs.)
Back in Toronto again, bummed but unbowed, Kudlow and Reiner decide to send a demo of some new songs to Chris Tsangarides, the Brit-based producer of their two best early albums. (He also produced Sabbath — and Priest!) Spinal Tap fans will especially savor this segment, in which the band flies to England to record in Tsangarides' studio, and discovers not only that he has an audio meter that goes up to 11, but that Stonehenge is not at all far away. (Naturally, they visit.) Soon they have all their new music down on disc — album number 13. They decide to call it This Is 13. Now if only they can find a label. ...
You can imagine what happens next. Well, no you can't. The movie is an intoxicating blend of blind faith and heartbreak, but while it's very funny, the abundant laughs are only half of what makes it such an unexpectedly inspiring document. Gervasi and his sizable crew (this was not a cheap picture to make) push in close on Anvil's seemingly ridiculous dream, with all its attendant spats and tears and vintage humiliations, and find it to be not really ridiculous at all. There's something heroic about these two men, edging into their 50s, refusing to admit defeat at the hands of the music industry, or whatever it is that's been responsible for cheating them of the recognition that should have long ago been theirs. Kudlow is a preposterously optimistic character — he'll go to his reward thinking up some nifty new riff — and we see that he drives Reiner nuts. But the drummer knows this is the only shot at glory he'll ever have, and he can't give it up, either. At the end, you'll want to cheer. Especially since (spoiler) everybody else does.
(Both TV and DVD rights to "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" have been acquired by MTV's sister channel, VH1.)
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Observe and Report," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Anvil! The Story of Anvil."
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