Friday, May 8, 2009

Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Independent, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we went to see at the Ken was called Anvil: The Story of Anvil (some of the promo materials and the listing put an exclamation point after the first “Anvil,” but the actual credits don’t), a documentary about an obscure heavy-metal band from Canada that came heartbreakingly close to achieving international superstardom in the 1980’s — they’re shown playing a Japanese heavy-metal festival in 1984 on the same bill as the Scorpions, Whitesnake and other future stars — only, for reasons that remain mysterious mainly because the film’s director, Sasha Gervasi (a former Anvil roadie from the glory days of the 1980’s), doesn’t seem all that interested in them, they never quite made it to the top rung of the music business and ended up back in Canada, working day jobs and putting the band together every time there’s a backer offering them the opportunity to record or tour.

There are brief interview segments from people who were in bands that became superstars, like Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Slash of Guns ‘n Roses and Velvet Revolver, remembering how good Anvil sounded in the 1980’s and how in particular their album Metal on Metal and its title song (and if Anvil has a signature song, that’s it) sounded to these other musicians like a ground-breaking record that was going to show the way to the heavy-metal future. About the only reason for Anvil getting so heartbreakingly close to the brass ring only to have it slip from their fingers that the film offers is that they were signed, not to a major record label, but to a small company called Attic that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) offer them state-of-the-art production.

The axis of Anvil is in two musicians, singer, lead guitarist and principal songwriter Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who met in high school and decided they would get together, form a band and do that for the rest of their lives. They’re a four-piece band and the other two members that we see in the film joined in the mid-1990’s after Anvil’s brief almost-heyday — there’s no clue as to what happened to the original members or whether they achieved stardom on their own or with other bands (though I’m inclined to think not because I’m sure the filmmakers would have mentioned it if they had) — though there’s a notice on the end credits that the bassist quit after principal photography on the film was finished.

A number of the reviewers have called Anvil a sort of real-life version of This Is Spinal Tap, and the similarities are evident — the near-identical names of Spinal Tap’s director (Rob Reiner) and Anvil’s drummer; a sequence backstage before an Anvil gig in Transylvania and they briefly look lost while they’re trying to find their way to the stage (echoing one of the funniest scenes in Spinal Tap), a visit by Kudlow and Reiner to the real Stonehenge (in Spinal Tap the band performs in front of a mock-up of Stonehenge that, thanks to a mistake by one of the band members, is about one-twelfth the size they intended), and even — when they hook up with the super-producer Chris Tsangarides (whose other credits include Whitesnake and Thin Lizzy) — a piece of electronic equipment in Tsangarides’ home studio with a volume control that, yes, goes to 11.

Charles was a bit worried about whether he’d like the movie — in particular he was concerned that the sound would be cranked up to comparable volume levels to those of a live heavy-metal concert — but as it turned out he was as charmed by it as I was. Kudlow and Reiner seem to have the sort of relationship that long-term police partners have — an intense emotional bond that doesn’t threaten their ties with their families (Reiner has a long-term marriage and Kudlow gets married during the course of the film — not for the first time, we think, though we’re not told for sure) but in a way transcends them. When they hook up with Tsangarides and he says he can record a state-of-the-art album for them for 13,000 pounds (that’s the entire cost, not just his fee) and give them the big, expansive production they haven’t been able to afford on the albums they’ve been releasing in the meantime, the sessions turn into an intense period of conflict between the two — Kudlow and Reiner seem less like long-term musical partners than like a married couple who’ve been together for years and whose misfortunes have seriously strained their relationship, and Tsangarides seems to be playing the part of their marriage counselor.

At one point Kudlow even fires Reiner from the band, then woos him back with an “apology” that threatens to degenerate into another argument. Earlier we’ve seen their rather disastrous tour of Eastern Europe, promoted by a would-be “manager” named Tiziana Arrigoni, with a lot of Spinal Tap-style mishaps, the band playing their heart out to handfuls of audience members, and finally them returning home to Canada (and Kudlow’s day job making deliveries for a company that does catering to school cafeterias) — but it’s the scenes in England that really are the most emotionally intense and moving parts of this film. The best part of this film is the sheer poignancy of it; one gets the impression that a band like Anvil that came so close to super-stardom and still fell short has a lot more emotional and psychological baggage than a band of high-school friends who never got beyond playing local bars and therefore weren’t tantalized by almost making it and can get together without having these kinds of regrets.

The film has a fascinating story arc as it ends with Anvil invited to play at a heavy-metal festival in Japan — where they once shared the stage with the Scorpions and Whitesnake in 1984 and it looked like the future was theirs — and then when they arrive they see that they’re supposed to lead off the festival at 11:45 a.m. and they wonder who’s going to show up to listen to their music at that ungodly (at least by rock ’n’ roll standards) hour. They fret about having to play their set for five people — and then they actually take the stage and the auditorium is nearly full, creating a kind of worm-turning triumph similar to the big premiere for Plan Nine from Outer Space at the end of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

Much of the movie turns on the fact that the members of Anvil are all too aware that they’re old (or at least middle-aged) men playing a young man’s game, and their hopes for stardom (such as they are) diminish with each passing year; having spent the money on Tsangarides’ album for them, they come home with the master tape, find the L.A.-based American majors utterly disinterested, get a nibble from EMI Canada — but when their home country’s branch finally decides to pass on them, they’re forced to release the CD themselves and sell it at concerts and online just like a startup band of kids fresh out of high school. If Anvil: The Story of Anvil has a flaw, it’s a typical one among music documentaries — we hear Anvil’s music only in snippets, a few seconds’ worth of a song at a time, and therefore we don’t really get an idea of whether they’re any good or not.

I’m not a fan of heavy metal — I respect the technical virtuosity required to play it (it may not be as hard to do metal as it is classical or jazz but metal, especially the lead guitar parts, requires a good deal more musical skill than punk and the “new wave” and “alternative” styles that have derived from it, though frankly “alternative” music generally touches me emotionally more than metal does) — and judging from what we do get in the film, Anvil seems pretty typical of the genre: ripping lead guitar solos, loud and often double-time rhythms from the bass and (especially) the drums, whiny falsetto lead vocals above it all (though Kudlow is less annoyingly whiny than some metal singers in bands that are major stars) and self-consciously mystical (sometimes darkly so — the stereotype that all heavy-metal musicians worship Satan is silly but there are enough “dark side” references in many metal songs that one can see where that urban legend got started) lyrics that attempt poetry and rarely achieve it — not that you can comprehend them over the volume of the music anyway. Anvil seem to do this style as well as anybody else — certainly as well as some of the major bands that started around the same time they did — and whatever the reason they didn’t become superstars, musical merit doesn’t seem to be one of them!