Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

We risk losing our doctored press badges and sneak behind enemy lines to get an early look at a film playing at SXSW – Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
By  · Published on April 10th, 2009

Everyone has a dream. The mail room worker who dreams of being a hot shot agent. The girl playing guitar in her dorm room that dreams of being a Rock Goddess. The cubicle worker that hopes to make it big as an advertising genius. Hell, there’s even an American Dream. A country has its own dream. Unfortunately, most people will never get to achieve theirs. Despite years of toiling, most everyone will eventually give in and succumb to their Plan B. They will look around them, realize they’ve grown too old to do what they longed for in their youth. The members of the band Anvil are not like most people.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is as simple a story as its title suggests. It examines a critical point in the career of Anvil – a band that made it big without ever making it big. Influential in creating the metal sound of the late 1970s, and acting as the catalyst for bands like Anthrax and Metallica, Anvil are heavy hitters that didn’t reach the level of fame needed to ride the wave of drunken groupies and all-night drug binges. They made it to the middle, and when the ride was over, they ended up middle-aged average joes still striving to become rock stars. The documentary itself picks up on the eve of the first major tour the band has had in years – hitting some major cities and festivals in Europe.

The story may be simple, but the people are complex. Before I go into the worth of the film, you should know one very basic fact: Anvil rocks. They kick ass. They are fantastic musicians who have created some hard rocking music.

That’s what makes watching the film much more difficult.

The documentary – which, I swear, is a real documentary – is like a blend between the pathetic awkwardness of Spinal Tap and the angry frustration of Some Kind of Monster, the Metallica doc that no one ever asked for. It’s a frustrating film because of the subject matter, but ultimately satisfying because of how the subject is treated. There’s zero pretense. Guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (as if there weren’t enough Spinal Tap references) are genuine, strikingly un-self-aware people who have no choice but to be exactly who they are. There’s no playing to the camera. There’s no holding back. The audience gets a fantastic view from the passenger’s seat in the last chance hand-basket that’s taking both men down to obscurity hell. We see where they grew up, where they live, where they work. We share in what must be the most frustrating reality for anyone with a dream – achieving it without achieving it.

The one question that haunts the action of the film is – why did they get so far without becoming famous?

Every step of the way, Lips – an odd blend of Geddy Lee (if he played wicked guitar) and Eeyore (if he complained more) – pulls the band kicking and screaming toward the mirage of stardom. They embark on an ill-fated European tour which appears to destroy his endless supply of faith until he sends a demo tape to former production partner and metal guru Chris Tsangarides. CT decides there’s potential, but they’ll have to self-finance a recording session. They fight. They almost break up several times. They meet a promoter who can get them a huge show in Japan. Every attempt is always their last shot at fame. Every last shot always comes with a catch.

As a documentary, the story unfolds near-flawlessly – blending shots of the austere Canadian neighborhood where Lips and Robb are fathers and husbands and part-time workers with the sweaty reality of touring with an unproven manager. The dark world of European clubs and metal show venues accentuates the frustrating elements, the emotions riding on high, and the disappointment of filling a 5,000 capacity arena with a 112-person audience. The bleak “real world” of their home lives was almost enough to bring me to tears as they and the people that love them struggle to deal with a dream that should have died years and years ago. Like modern-day Don Quixotes, Anvil are always tilting at a multi-platinum record deal, and the financial and emotional tolls are severe. It’s enough to make you want to ask your local fast-food establishment employee what he once dreamed of becoming and how close he got.

But the beauty of the documentary is that behind all the struggle is a childlike hope and faith in the value of what they’re doing. In the genius of music. In the revelation of the creative process. It’s only sad if you adhere to what most of society defines as “success.” It’s clear that the members of Anvil believe strongly in that definition, but by all accounts they’ve already achieved some major feats – putting out upwards of a dozen albums, getting the recognition they deserve from members of metal’s elite, and getting to play in front of thousands of screaming fans. There’s a lot of joy in that – and that joy isn’t lost on Lips or the filmmakers. The Story of Anvil may feature more than its fair share of poignant, heartfelt, desperate moments, but it’s ultimately a simple story of two friends who refuse to quit on each other and who refuse to stop doing what they’re passionate about.

Oddly enough, with the success of this documentary, there’s a possibility that Anvil may enter back into the public conscious. I’ll admit to never hearing of them before the film (and to buying their album Metal on Metal because of it), but wouldn’t it be fitting if this film acted as their true last shot at stardom and actually paid off. It would be incredibly meta, but it also couldn’t happen to a more deserving crew of musical talent. Not bad for a documentary about a couple of rockers from Canada.

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