In 1984, Toronto's Anvil was riding the wave of heavy metal stardom. Built around the core of Steve "Lips" Kudlow's blistering guitar and Robb Reiner's thunderdrums, Anvil had recorded two classic albums with superstar producer Chris Tsangarides and toured Japan with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and the Scorpions. But while their signature sound inspired the next wave of metal bands like Metallica and Anthrax, poor management and bad record companies left Anvil hammering away in the salt mines of the crappy bar circuit.
So far, not an unusual story; for every band that makes it, a thousand don't. The difference? When he went looking, director Sacha Gervasi, who had roadied for Anvil as a kid back in the '80s, found Anvil still playing the same songs in the same venues twenty-five years later. But it wasn't a reunion tour; unlike every other band on the scene, they just never stopped.
The movie starts with some old footage and metal legends talking about why Anvil never made it (Slash from Guns 'N' Roses sums it up best: "Sometimes life deals you a tough deck."). We see Lips and Robbo -- best friends since they were 15, now in their 50s -- dealing with the daily trudge of dead-end jobs when opportunity arises in the form of a new manager and a European tour. Dreams of a rebirth sour as they play empty clubs and get paid in goulash, capped off with a headlining slot at a Transylvania venue that seats 10,000. Only 174 people show up.
Back home, Lips' eternal -- almost psychotic -- optimism leads to a new recording session with Tsangarides, and the psychodrama of the recording sessions is like something out of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. The album's fate -- will they finally get their due? -- drives the rest of the film, but throughout it's more than just a story of a band on the make. The relationships, with wives, kids, and sisters, are what make you see the people behind the hair and the solos, and the bond between Lips and Robb is as deep and real as anything you'll see this year. What could have been a joke quietly becomes a true, touching story about friendship and devotion to a dream.
I feel like a hack even mentioning This Is Spinal Tap, but the director puts it right up front. At Tsangarides's studio, the knobs actually go to 11; Robb and Lips visit Stonehenge, and at one point Gervasi frames them talking to each other with the stones in the distance between their faces. (Hint, hint.) Early in the film, Gervasi has Robbo and Lips sit side-by-side in a sandwich shop to talk about their first song, an exact mirror of the Tap scene. Anvil!'s been lazily pigeonholed as the "real life Spinal Tap," but it's vastly more. (Fine, song titles like "March of the Crabs" and "Five Knuckle Shuffle" don't help matters any.)
The movie premiered at Sundance, and has been on the festival circuit since. I saw it at the Los Angeles Film Festival at an outdoor venue, and afterwards Anvil took the stage for a set that had it all -- extended drum solo, stacks of Marshalls, an audience on its feet, an encore with Anthrax's Scott Ian, and then a second encore when the crowd wouldn't leave. When Lips shouted out, "Hello, LA! This is one of the greatest moments in my life!" it was easy to believe.
Asked after the screening if Anvil! had been sold, Gervasi said that they weren't going to sell it, but turn it into a traveling road show -- screen the movie, then have Anvil play their set. If it really happens, it’s the perfect way to experience it; even if you’d never heard of the band before, after the movie you know them, and you care. And right then, at that moment, you’re making their dream come true just by being there. How often does a movie do that?