You learn something every day. One day, you know nothing about a Canadian heavy metal band named Anvil, and suddenly you learn that they’ve recorded twelve albums (and are working on numbers 13 and 14) and were considered to be a contemporary of metal legends like Metallica, Anthrax and Motorhead. You might not have known that Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses was a teenage fan and that, once in their youth, they met with head-banging reverence by festival crowds.
And, surprisingly, you learn that a documentary about a past-their-prime Canadian heavy metal hair band on a long, long losing streak can be an enlightening rumination on what it means to have a dream, and to keep it alive long enough that it might come true.
I’ll admit to once having a few Kiss and Judas Priest LPs in my collection. I may have turned the radio up to blast “Back In Black” while alone in the car. But I’m no metal fan. When I began to watch Sasha Gervasi’s excellent documentary, I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t a “This Is Spinal Tap” tribute. Early scenes capture Steve “Lips” Kudlow working his depressing catering job and the band embarking on an ill-fated European tour. There are so many Spinal Tap moments here: devoted fans “Cut Loose” and “Mad Dog” (who pounds a beer through his nose), a lead guitarist who plays with a vibrator, and the local television show reveling in Anvil’s dirty rock lyrics. Their song “Metal On Metal” even sounds like Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom.” When band co-founder and drummer Robb Reiner was introduced, I was sure it had to be an homage to the director of the greatest-ever rock mockumentary.
But then something really unexpected happens: Anvil as a heavy-metal joke disappears, and the guys become very genuine people who you wish would find success and fulfillment in their music. Watching Kudlow record an enthusiastic radio-station promo and being told that, oops, we forgot to turn on the tape, you’ll be amazed that he doesn’t stop smiling. Even during the difficult behind-the-scenes moments when he childishly argues with Reiner, with whom he has rocked since a teenager, you can see the nice guy beneath the black t-shirt.
So the European tour is a failure, and the band returns to Ontario to get back to their lives. But they’ve recorded some demos and Kudlow sends a copy off to the producer of their early albums. He refuses to let his dreams die, even as he celebrates his 50th birthday, and despite a music scene that has changed dramatically since the band formed.
The core of Anvil! is definitely the bond between Kudlow and Reiner, who seem to consider each other as a brother, although they continue to butt heads. Kudlow is the overgrown kid who believes in the possibilities of rock and roll, and Reiner supplies the steady propulsion and balance expected of a drummer. Both have families that wearily support them — Reiner’s sister is the one downer — and enough hope shines through to keep them pursuing fame. Eventually, the producer calls back and the band faces difficult decisions that test their commitment. I’ll leave it at that.
This should be required watching for anyone in a band, for anyone who wants to be a musician — not necessarily as a lesson in how to become a success or avoid becoming a failure. The film is really a testament to the tenacity of dreams. Reiner expresses frustration that success hasn’t found Anvil, and seems well aware that their last chance has to happen pretty soon. It seems like only death will stop Kudlow — they will have to pry the Flying V from his cold, dead hands.
There’s more talk about life and aspiration in this film than a thousand afterschool specials. Kudlow’s successful, professional siblings are incredibly supportive. A scene where his older sister states her support for his dreams (and yet fights back tears and a troubled brow) is nicely concluded with his observation that “family is important shit, man.” Lasting fame may not find the band, but I’d say these guys are successful for having the support for their unlikely rockin’ dreams.