A funny documentary has endlessly quotable lines. An even funnier documentary has endlessly quotable lines delivered in a Canadian accent. Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a chronicle of the forgotten Maple Leaf metalers and their last-ditch effort for commercial and creative success, has given the band its second wind twice: first, as a sleeper hit that made the film-festival rounds, including Sundance, last year, and now as a nationwide release. So don’t feel too bad if you don’t know much aboot Anvil just yet.
After glowing praise from Slash, Lars Ulrich, Lemmy Kilmister, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Slayer’s Tom Araya, who introduce the film, you’d think the band were the Great White North’s equivalent of Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. But what unfolds is a 30-year story of ups and mostly downs not even a high-priced life coach could’ve resolved. Anvil only wishes it had some of Metallica’s problems.
Singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner — two nice Jewish boys (Reiner is the son of a Holocaust survivor) who are the group’s remaining original members — formed Anvil in Toronto in the late ’70s while still in their teens, and went on to follow the same recipe as their Reagan-era hard-rock brethren. They made the cover of Kerrang!; opened for heavyweights Aerosmith, Motörhead and Iron Maiden; and shared stages with the likes of the Scorpions, Bon Jovi and Whitesnake (before they became superstars) at major festivals, where Lips would play his guitar with a vibrator. Their early albums — Hard ’n’ Heavy, Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire — were thrash-metal influences on the aforementioned commentators, with the obligatory lyrics verging on both the demonic and doom-laden (“666”) and the comically crass (“Jackhammer” and “School Love”). “Out in the school yard little peaches play/Rubbing their beaves they got a lot to say,” Lips sings in his ode to prepubescent lust. Songs like “Hair Pie” and “Show Me Your Tits” would come later in the ’90s. (Hey, romance is for their sissy neighbors down south.) Worldwide fame seemed fated. But after leaving their original indie label, the band fell victim to bad management and bad luck, becoming a mostly Canadian institution not known beyond their cold confines.
Fast-forward to 2005 and an e-mail Lips received from Gervasi, an old friend and onetime band roadie. Gervasi had become a successful Hollywood screenwriter, penning the script for Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, but he wondered whether the guys he’d befriended in London in 1982 were still chugging along. After a reunion with Lips in L.A., Gervasi got the idea to follow the two around as they attempted to rise from the depths of obscurity. “As soon as he told me, I broke down in tears,” says Lips during a phone conversation while on a press tour in New York. “Here I’d worked 30 years, hacking away at the music industry, being successful to my expectations but not in the grand scheme of things the way the world perceives as successful. And along comes this guy who we haven’t seen in many years, and the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Wow, my 30 years of being in the underground was for the purpose of making a movie. This is all meant to be.’ I completely embraced it.”
“I embraced it right away,” Reiner adds. “But I had questions. Nobody knows who Anvil is. Who would want to see this or care about us? But Sacha told me that there’s a lot more here than I’m even aware of.”
Watching a band being bitch-slapped by Lady Luck is humbling for anyone who’s ever had a dream, or, at least, a temp job. By day, the two toil away doing regular work — Lips for a catering company, Reiner as a construction worker — and by night, they play mostly sports bars and small venues. They embark on a European tour, along with current bassist Glenn Five, and encounter every type of misfortune, from missed trains to half-empty halls. Backstage, they chase after rock stars who scarcely remember them. And after reconnecting with former producer Chris Tsangarides (Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest) for their 13th album, they shop for a label deal, only to be rejected. Lips even takes a stab at telemarketing, hawking sunglasses over the phone to fund the recording cost. But dream they still do, as do their long-suffering and patient families, including Reiner’s wife, who still sports feathered hair.
A documentary on an obscure Canadian band is bound to elicit at least a few laughs, Spinal Tap–ian and beyond, whether it’s Lips talking about the first song he wrote, which was inspired by the Spanish Inquisition, or confronting a shady Prague club owner who’s also serving goulash. They have fans who call themselves “Mad Dog” and “Cut Loose” after Anvil songs and drink beer through their noses, and their tour manager is a bumbling Italian woman who speaks broken English. No, they don’t fuckin’ play Stonehenge, but they do perform “666” at the wedding reception of their other guitarist, Ivan Hurd.
When I ask whether Hurd is still a member, Reiner jumps in: “We’re the world’s most powerfullest, awesomest three-piece power trio that exists.” Nigel Tufnel couldn’t have said it better.
Do they mind the comparisons? “It’s not a coincidence,” Lips admits. “Obviously, anybody making a rock documentary is gonna be instantly compared to Spinal Tap. We embraced that instead of repelling it or trying to deny it. We actually used it to benefit ourselves. It’s a great commercial hook. It’s a way for people to relate to what this is, to a degree, because once sitting down and watching the movie, it’s a much different movie.”
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Hilarity aside, the film is also a testament to an enduring friendship — a bromance, if you will — between two geezers in their 50s who still share the same rock-star fantasy. Lips’ never-say-die attitude is especially inspiring. And if every band just fought, cried, said sooryand hugged it out, there’d be a lot fewer reunion tours.
Tenacity has not only given Anvil their cinematic justice but has also thrown them a few surprises: Keanu Reeves hosted the movie’s London premiere, with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, in attendance; Lips and Reiner just published their autobiography (currently only available in the U.K.), which includes a foreword by Slash; and the band is set to play England’s upcoming Download Festival, while a petition to get them to Glastonbury is circulating online.
Clearly, if you must, and you should, there are no better people to seek advice from. “If you really believe in yourself and you really believe in what you’re doing, then just stick with it no matter what anybody says, thinks or does,” Reiner offers. “That’s the only thing us rockers have.”
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, released by Abramorama, exclusively at the Landmark Nuart. Lips and Reiner conduct a Q&A after the April 10, 7:30 p.m. screening at the Landmark Nuart.