[3 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Imagine you’re Paul McCartney…no, not the superstar Beatle legend who literally rewrote the pop song rulebook along with fellow musical titan John Lennon. No, this Paul McCartney was equally adept at turning words and notes into memorable hits. He struggled with his fellow bandmates, including George Harrison and Pete Best, brokering a steady career climb. Eventually, he catches the ear of wannabe manager Brian Epstein, the group gets a shot with a major label, and they appear poised to take over the world - that is, until The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, and some upstarts called The Rolling Stones steal their thunder (and their prospects), leaving McCartney and his mates in the dust. Now, four decades later, a disgruntled cab driver with continuing dreams of fame and stardom retires to his lonely bedsit, picks up a guitar, and gets lost in the power of sound. He’s still Paul McCartney, but he’s no longer a semi-star.
That’s the story of Steve “Lips” Kudlow, a talented teen from Toronto who, in 1973, hooked up with high school buddy Robb Reiner, and formed the seminal speed thrash outfit Anvil. By the early ‘80s, they had released three albums, including the classic Metal on Metal, and were featured along with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and The Scorpions, at the Super Rock Festival in Japan. But just as they were poised to take over the scene with their unique blend of power and passion, just as they were about to set the stage for such future students as Metallica, Anthrax, and Guns and Roses, Anvil abruptly vanished. No, they kept making records and relentlessly touring. But as Lemmy of Motorhead prophetically points out, sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time - and for Kudlow and Reiner, the ship sailed before they knew they could even book passage.
Now, some three decades later, the guys are still making music. With a couple of new band members and a batch of songs, they hope to jumpstart their flagging career. Working a day job delivering meals to local Canadian schools, Kudlow remains open to the entire experience. At 50, he’s perhaps too old to rock and roll, but far too young to die - or do anything else, for that matter. Reiner is far more blunt. He wants to make it now, to be a major player in a business he feels forgot Anvil even existed. Yet as a proposed tour of Europe goes from bearable to bad to worse, and the prospects of recording their 13th album grow dim, both men are asked to face up to the facts - they’re aging and nowhere near where they hoped they would be.
If it didn’t keep reminding you of its documentary roots, if it didn’t keep showing you signs of abject reality where satire and spoof might also fit, Anvil: The Story of Anvil would seem like a nu-generation take on that classic mock-doc spoof, This is Spinal Tap. After all, the band appears to be as cluelessly charming and directionally dysfunctional as the Christopher Guest/ Michael McKean/Harry Shearer side project. Kudlow’s cockeyed optimism, juxtaposed against the constant conflict and karmic mishaps of a horrendous European tour (complete with missed trains, undersized venues, and arguments with owners over payment) grow from pathetic to legendary, and there’s more where that came from. There’s even the brotherly love/brotherly battles of two conflicting personalities - and the other main subject is named “Robb Reiner” after all. As the evidence piles up, the question becomes clear - how is this not a joke?
The answer is simple and quite profound. Director Sacha Gervasi has created one of the great masterpieces of the music business, a seminal statement of pipe dreams and true possibilities that along with the psychological struggles of Some Kind of Monster and the friendly competition of Ondi Timoner’s DiG! exposes the artistic process for what it truly is - a painful and brutal series of disappointments. While it’s nice to see the up front testimonials of musicians with larger fanbases and bigger bank accounts than Anvil, such celebration and recognition raises an interesting point - where were these so-called band fans when Kudlow and Reiner really needed them. While no one is expecting outright charity, would an opening slot on a stadium tour be too much to ask?
You see, the reason Anvil keeps going, the reason we root for them all throughout this amazing motion picture, is because they actually have “the goods”. They aren’t some naïve no talents who blindly believe in their own ability. In the various live settings we see them perform in, they are a confident and conquering musical presence. They can still play, and connect with audiences in a way that few bands can even begin to approach. Even in the studio (they finally get a chance to record thanks to some familial generosity and the return of favored producer Chris “CT” Tsangeride ), they exude confidence. So the notion that they have yet to truly make it after so long trying tempts fate. But it also argues for Gervasi’s main theme - that sometimes, talent is trumped by situational and social pitfalls.
True, Kudlow and Reiner fight. They tend to play the passive/aggressive thing to the hilt. But it’s never truly gotten in the way of their work. What we see throughout the course of Anvil is the story of millions of artistic hopefuls. In fact, this band came closer than many bedroom superstars. As the anecdotes piles up about their place as perennial also-rans, as we watch the guys give it their all for little or no reward, as we realize that they’ve continuously recorded and toured since their inception, the lack of acknowledgement should be difficult to deal with. But thanks to Gervasi, who never lets things get too dark, and Kudlow, who plays private cheerleader with the best of them, we wind up with something winning. Even the last act return to Japan offers enough palpable positivity to keep the dream alive.
And that’s all Anvil wants. In the end, this is a film about never giving up, about never giving in to the constant harangues from friends and family about “growing up and getting real jobs.” Kudlow may seem like the last man standing in a battle he was ill prepared to win, and Reiner may be around because he can’t do anything else, but that doesn’t make these aging Canadians pathetic or deluded. No, what Anvil: The Story of Anvil explains is that, without individuals like this, the world would be dominated by ego and the undeserving. Guys like Kudlow and Reiner do more than “keep it real.” They keep it realistic.
“Ninety-nine percent of all bands don’t make money”, our true believer argues to a group of Scandinavian fans. As they stare at him blankly, the visage of Kudlow in a hairnet, setting up his van for a series of deliveries comes directly to mind. On stage, Anvil is unmatched. Behind the scenes, this classic documentary explains that Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are like everyone else - hopeful, hardworking, and hindered by elements outside their control. As a lifelong fan, Gervasi’s love letter is sweet and sensible. As a film, Anvil: The Story of Anvil is without a doubt one of 2009’s best.