[5 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Apparently, success is merely a matter of serendipity. For over two decades, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, founding members of the heavy metal group Anvil, were plugging away in obscurity, releasing albums to little commercial return and touring the world to smaller, if still devoted, audiences. At one point, they were the toast of the hard rock world, influencing acts as diverse as Pantera, Slayer, and Metallica. But as the brilliant documentary on the band by Sacha Gervais illustrates, Anvil got lost in the hair band hoopla of the ‘80s - bad management and a three year gap of non-activity allowing their ship to sail - without them onboard. So when the remaining vestiges of the group played a music festival in Italy in 2005, they could never have imagined that the casual mention of one of their former groupies would lead to a late in life resurgence.
“It was insane”, Lips said in a recent roundtable interview to promote the 6 October DVD release of the masterful Anvil: The Story of Anvil, “we were hanging out and someone mentioned Sacha. Then Tiziana contact us about a European tour. Next thing I know, Sacha is coming over talking about a movie. Before we know it, we’re hitting the road with our old friend in tow.” Indeed, Gervasi was listening to some music in his Los Angeles home when the idea hit him of contacting his former friends. Even after two decades, they reconnected almost immediately. There was no preplanned arrangement regarding a documentary, no early discussions about bringing Anvil to the masses in motion picture form. With five months of the reunion, they were filming. “It was fate”, says drummer and lifelong friend of Lips, Robb Reiner. “What’s happened here is revolutionary. It’s unique and very special.”
Indeed, when you think about, Anvil’s story, it’s the stuff of some manner of sublime synchronicity. “All the elements were in the right place,” director Gervasi, a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned filmmaker, confessed. “The guys were ready. The tour was set. We had a crew prepared to hit the road. Everything just came together like magic.” The result is one of the greatest documentaries about pursuing your dreams and overcoming your doubts ever made. Set within the always frantic - and fair-weather - music business, and providing a very personal glimpse into the lives of Lips and Robb, Anvil: The Story of Anvil transcends the trappings of the typical documentary to become a primer of perseverance, optimism, and staring down defeat with good cheer and a whole lot of guts.
“We were the band with bad luck,” Robb adds. “Someone once said Anvil was always too early or too late.” Lips sees a more practical reason for the lack of initial success. “We had a choice,” he explains. “We could have gone with the management (that later discovered and spearheaded Metallica), but we chose to sign with (the man behind Aerosmith). As a result, there was a major gap - three years, where we were idle. They were the crucial years. We missed out.” Indeed, after amazing albums like Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire, the record companies wanted the group to modify their sound to be more like Bon Jovi. The resulting stand-off saw an entire subgenre of rock take over the airwaves, leaving Anvil off the radar during a crucial time in their career.
Oddly enough, there are few hard feelings. “It’s better now”, says Robb, suggesting that the resurgence the band’s currently seeing is more satisfying than any early, flash in the pan fame. “We’re living the dream.” Lips is far more practical, even if he is the certified cheerleader of the entire Anvil overview. “We’ve worked hard, and we deserve it”, he says in his typically sunny manner. But he also understands that there’s an ethereal quality to what’s happening now that just can’t be explained. “When Sacha came to us and started talking about a film, I cried, man. I knew it would be successful”, he says. “I predicted it - everything that’s happened - I predicted the success. I knew it was going to be majorly important. I could just see it all.”
And now audiences can too. Anvil: The Story of Anvil is truly one of 2009’s treasures, a brilliant distillation of how the fleeting flicker of the limelight just can’t destroy the hard work and determination of two incredibly dedicated and legitimately likable guys. In Gervasi’s genius undertaking, we get to know these middle-aged men: Lips works for a Canadian caterer supplying meals to school children. Robb dabbles in construction while pursuing a personal passion for painting. Both have families that are supportive but specious. After three decades and 13 albums, they’d hope the boys would see more mainstream acceptance. Balancing these beliefs with other individual insights, we get a true, more telling Behind the Music portrait of greatness struggling to survive.
Some critics have suggested that the film is more or less a real life Spinal Tap, the Anvil antics we see onscreen almost mimicking the definitive mock documentary by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner. “How could we avoid it?”, Gervasi laughs. “Our drummer is named after Tap‘s director!” Indeed, the crew chose to embrace the similarities, making sure visual cues (an amplifier stack that, indeed, “goes to 11”) and satiric situations (the funny/sad sight of the group playing to an audience of about five) stood out. “We knew people were going to compare the two,” Gervasi continues, “there was no way to avoid it. So we didn’t. Besides, Lips is a funny guy. I mean, come on, this guy’s wearing a bondage harness onstage and playing guitar with a (vibrator). People can’t help but laugh.”
But there is more than Anvil: The Story of Anvil than a sometimes cruel comedy of expectations and errors. As the DVD commentary points out, the time captured by Gervasi was crucial, a crossroads for the group that can be heard interwoven into every conversation between Lips and Robb. Throughout the film we see the men sparing about their future, each one determined to stay the course and not let the other down. It makes for a hugely emotional experience, one where your own sense of fairness and dreams deferred overwhelm your more practical concerns. Soon, all you care about is seeing Lips and Robb rewarded, to somehow metaphysically move the narrative along so that failed European tours and troubled recording sessions lead to universal acclaim - or at the very least, a sell-out crowd at a Japanese rock festival.
For those who’ve seen the film - and if you haven’t go out and buy the DVD on 6 October, that’s an order! - Anvil: The Story of Anvil actually ends on a beginning. Indeed, since its release a little less than a year ago, the group has played to packed houses, toured along with the movie, opened for AC/DC in front of over 60,000 screaming fans, and is finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve. So naturally, there is talk about a sequel, “but it would have to be a real story,” Gervasi explains. “We are definitely working on something, but it has to have the same narrative appeal. We don’t need to do a “where are they now” follow-up. That’s happening already. There will definitely be something, but it has to a real film, like the original.” “We’ve done failure,” Lips laughs. “I think it would be interesting to see what happens once ‘success’ hits Anvil. Does it change us?”
One thing’s for sure, it’s been a hard and sometimes painful row to hoe. “I tell the boys it’s like a prize fight”, Gervasi explains. “They’ve being going twelve hard rounds. They’ve taken all the punches and body blows. They’re against the ropes and they’re on their last breath. And just then, someone walks up to you and whispers ‘you’ve won’. That’s how it is.” Lips and Robb both agree. “It’s so satisfying”, the laid back drummer confesses. “This is the best time of my life.” It’s awesome,” adds Lips. And with one of the best movies of the year under their belt, as well as a newfound lease on life, Anvil has finally made it. They’ve won - and film fans couldn’t be happier.