by Chris Estey
Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi was at one time a roadie for Anvil, a Canadian heavy metal band whose roots go back to 1973 but who saw their peak during the post-British “new wave of metal” (exemplified by Iron Maiden and Def Leppard), in a period before bands like Metallica rose up in the States. (Anvil wore bondage gear but had a working class image closer to post-Poison and Ratt, American bands that matched their chugging masculine angst.) Gervasi, who also played keyboards in Bush and fathered a child with Ginger Spice, premiered his very affectionate yet still Lemmy-sized, warts-and-all documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil at Sundance in January 2008. Not only is it one of the best films in SIFF‘s Face The Music line-up, but it is one of the better rock-docs period (as long as you don’t demand that the subject of such a film be either much of a success or very good).
The artful, angry, political Patti Smith: Dream of Life was made from closely inside her camp as well, but as expressive and beautiful as that feature is, it is an almost barbaric personal honesty that makes Anvil! so complex and compelling. While showing founder and singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow whacking away at his guitar with a wobbly dildo at a Japanese festival a few decades back, Gervasi then allows icons like Slash from GN’R and Lars from Metallica to give credit to the (forgive me) seminal original quartet. (Be prepared for howls of laughter from your fellow viewers when their two biggest fans show up to repeat some of the best/worst metal lyrics you’ll ever hear from an English-speaking band.)
The title I have chosen for my review comes from one of the band’s own songs, “Mothra,” off the album Metal On Metal, from what is considered the group’s heyday in the early 80s. At that time, Anvil was an underground buzz metal indie group, until they signed with Attic Records in 1983. Today, original, remaining members Lips and drummer Robb Reiner (didn’t he make... oh wait, different guy, almost the same name) carry on Anvil, though the former daytimes as a children’s caterer and the latter paints forlorn Edward Hopper-style scenes of empty buildings, huge statues of anvils, an empty drum set (called Left Behind), and poop in a toilet. Bass player Glenn Five (still in the band) and second guitarist Ivan Hurd (gone) are also in the movie, but due to their coming on board fairly recently in the 90s they aren’t used much as part of the story (though more of Five’s opinions on things may have been illuminating). They all still live and work in icy, snow-smothered Toronto but don’t seem to be a part of any sort of regional music scene. (This is an interesting aspect to the band; for all their ambition to play Eastern Europe and sign to major labels, they seem to have written off being part of a local milieu, possibly because there’s no one left in it who makes music anything like they do.)
The sometimes somewhat violent love-hate brotherhood of Lips and Reiner, nowboth older Jewish men, becomes the obvious comedy and heart of joy in the movie. They yell and cry and keep grinding away year after year; they seem to be “in it to win it,” even through ruined tours wretchedly booked by eager but incompetent fan-agents and their own self-destructive mood swings... and the fact that they haven’t had a decent-sounding record since 1983′s Forged in Fire. At least that’s what they think might be wrong -- the production -- so they enlist Chris Tsangarides, who had worked with them (and Sabbath and other, better known, hard rock bands) before. With hope for redemption in the new record, This Is Thirteen, Anvil fly to the British veteran producer’s home and record an album from money that Lips tearfully borrowed from his big sister (saying one of my very favorite lines in the movie: “Family is heavy shit, man.”) However, it might have been a good idea to pay for this project themselves and shop it around first. The mortified on-camera response (and subsequent email) from an A&R guy at Canadian EMI they play it for shows how much humiliation older bands must endure when their buzz has long since died.
People have talked about how funny Anvil! is, and how horrible the band is, but while I think that first part is true, I do think the band was no worse than any other metal band from the period that they first thrived in. There is a timeless quality to the two leaders’ artistic struggle -- as if they could be leftovers from vaudeville days or sons of Beat poets. Their art may be banal, but it is straight from the heart. And it’s that darkly beautiful relationship between Lips and Reiner, never giving up on each other’s vision even when surly or stoned, that makes the somewhat triumphant ending something that pleases most anyone who watches this miraculous, fucked up testament to rock and roll.