It's easy to describe "Anvil!" as a real world version of "This is Spinal Tap," and the comparison is incredibly accurate. Listen, "Spinal Tap" didn't come out of thin air, leading me to believe that the antics of the Canadian metal band Anvil must've played some part in the 1984 comedy classic. While suitably absurd and prone to spotlighting rock cliché humiliation, "Anvil" is a far more reverberating and loving film than it seems at first glance. Taking a second look at the career of a band who was always this close to the success of their brothers in the headbangin' congregation, "Anvil!" is a stupendous document of perseverance and crushing musical industry realities, brought to life by the two men who somehow managed to keep the devil horns raised for over 30 years of disappointment.
Since the 1970s, vocalist/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner have kept the band Anvil marching forward in the face of paralyzing failure and missed opportunities. Achieving a modicum of success in the early '80s with such cult classics as "Metal on Metal," the band toured the world, frightened fellow rock stars with their volcanic stage presence (Kudlow would often solo on guitar using a vibrator), and churned out a series of albums that wowed the industry. They just couldn't sell any of them.
Decades later, Anvil still remains, with only Kudlow and Reiner surviving from the original line-up and the spotlight has dimmed. Now Kudlow supplements his income by making food deliveries to elementary schools and Reiner supports himself with contracting gigs. They remain feisty musicians, keeping the Anvil brand alive throughout the years with indie releases and tours here and there, but the window of opportunity has dramatically narrowed, leaving the men aware of their musical mortality, but unwilling to hang up the thunder just yet.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, "Anvil!" seeks to redefine what the band contributed to the classic metal scene (interviews with the likes of Lars Ulrich, Slash, and Lemmy recount the envy) and capture a rebirth after years of poisonous stagnancy. Offered a European tour by a dubious promoter, Kudlow and Reiner eagerly hit the road to seek a needed blast of fame and hopefully some fortune. Any student of "Spinal Tap" surely knows what occurs next: missed flights, lost money, tiny audiences, and mounting frustrations that lead to petty infighting. The road takes few prisoners.
Somehow through the art of direction, Gervasi doesn't seek to make fools of Kudlow and Reiner. In fact, I think he's in love with these dreamers, as "Anvil!" is a valentine to the band and their insecurities. Observing the boys stroll right into failure and confusion time and again would be enough fodder to craft an extravagant farce, but Gervasi is infatuated with the spirit and bond shared between these men, especially Kudlow, who pays tribute to his Canadian heritage by remaining positive throughout every violation of trust thrown at him. Even his outbursts toward awful club managers and Reiner come across more as polite cleansing than bitter rage, and believe me, this guy has every right to throw his hands up in disgust. Instead, Kudlow maintains an enviable peace with his disappointment, which Gervasi deftly juxtaposes against a stream of disgrace as Kudlow frantically searches for seed money to get Anvil up and moving, preferably into the comforting arms of legendary producer and amateur band therapist, Chris Tsangarides.
The concept of indefatigable faith in talent and the patience to ride out the bucking yin/yang of life elevates "Anvil!" over many similar stories of pop culture banishment. Gervasi wipes away the obvious punchlines to present Kudlow and Reiner as sensitive, generous, and terrified men nervously facing the rest of their life without the proper career explosion they deserve, and that potent tension turns "Anvil!" from a cheap laugh to a documentary that's thrillingly heartfelt and extracts a genuine reflection on life that's downright poetic.
Reviewed at the 2009 Florida Film Festival
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