By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009
Now this is Spinal Tap.
"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" is a riveting new documentary about a couple of old Canadian headbangers who are still chasing the heavy-metal dream, and -- lo -- it plays like a reality-based version of Rob Reiner's epochal 1984 heavy-metal mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap."
There's a disastrously attended European tour cooked up by an inept manager and a semi-triumphant comeback concert in Japan, with a visit to Stonehenge added to the itinerary as a way to demonstrate that Anvil knows its "Spinal Tap" and, also, knows from self-parody.
There's also a reference to cranking it up to 11. Oh, and the drummer's name is Robb Reiner. Seriously. (Alas, the drummer's chair does not explode.)
But "Anvil!" is no joke, even if it's full of hilarious moments -- only some of which are unintentional. Rather, it's a poignant portrait of Reiner and singer-guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow, the Anvil co-founders whose perseverance is at once inspirational and incomprehensible given their travails, including one particularly horrendous show at an empty Romanian arena.
"Things went drastically wrong," Kudlow says of the ill-fated tour of Eastern Europe. "But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on!"
"The Story of Anvil" is a love letter -- or, better yet, a devil's-horn salute -- to the band from filmmaker Sacha Gervasi, an old Anvil fan who became a sort of roadie-mascot for the group back when it was a semi-big deal.
Fret not if you haven't heard of them, though. That's sort of the point of the film, which accurately explains that, for a fleeting moment a quarter-century ago, Anvil was on the verge of becoming one of the leaders of the global heavy-metal brigade.
Its 1982 album, "Metal on Metal," was a trend-setter -- so heavy, so thrashy that it became a template for the speed-metal stars that followed in Anvil's wake: Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica, whose drummer, Lars Ulrich, says in the documentary: "These guys were literally going to turn the music world upside-down." Anthrax's Scott Ian backs him up on this point, as do others offering testimonials.
Anvil's outrageous live shows were semi-legendary, too, what with the exceedingly charismatic and crude Kudlow slithering around stage in Spandex pants and leather bondage straps, whipping his poofy leonine mane around while playing his Flying-V guitar with, um, a sex toy. "It was just complete insanity," recalls Slash, the Guns 'N Roses guitarist.
There were major tours and festivals, including a 1984 stadium show in Japan with Bon Jovi, the Scorpions and Whitesnake -- all of whom became million-selling stars, save for Anvil, as the doc notes at the very start.
Footage of that festival actually opens "The Story of Anvil," with the band powering through "Metal on Metal's" title track. The song seems something like a mission statement, with Kudlow singing, repeatedly: "Keep on rockin'/Keep on rockin'!"
The next time we see him singing live, it's at a celebratory concert for his 50th birthday at a small bar in Etobicoke, Ontario. Hardly glamorous, but way better than his day job, as a delivery-van driver for a catering company that provides public-school meals.
Shepherd's pie, pizza, meatloaf and meatballs are staples, and Mondays are always banana days, Kudlow says in one of those heartbreaking scenes that feels kind of like watching Mickey Rourke working the deli counter in "The Wrestler." Only this, of course, is real.
"For all this horrible [expletive] that I got to go through, I've got Anvil, that gives me happiness," Kudlow says. "It works out really good. Because even though Anvil doesn't give me pay, it gives me the joy and the pleasure that you need to get through life."
So why did Anvil fail while some of its contemporaries, if not followers, became huge with the heshers? "The Story of Anvil" never really settles on an answer. Perhaps that's because it's often impossible to determine why certain bands are gifted with winning tickets in the great pop-music lottery while others that seem to have the goods stumble into obscurity.
"They should have made it a lot bigger, and I don't really understand the reason why" they didn't, Slash says. "Sometimes life deals you a tough deck."
The Anvil dudes keep on shuffling, though, because they don't really have any choice but to keep on rockin'. For the end is as unfathomable to Kudlow and Reiner as, well, the end of Spinal Tap was to David St. Hubbins, who pretty much summed it up for Anvil when he said: "I don't really think that the end can be assessed as of itself as being the end because what does the end feel like? It's like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe, you say, if the universe is indeed infinite, then how -- what does that mean? How far is all the way, and then if it stops, what's stopping it, and what's behind what's stopping it? So, what's the end, you know, is my question to you."
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (90 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains full frontal male nudity and crude language.