Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008, Director: Sacha Gervasi): I knew within the first five minutes of the film that I loved these guys, and it took about another five minutes for me to decide I was buying a CD from them (NOTE: Available from either of the two links below). That’s not an easy sell. You see, I grew up here in Toronto, Anvil’s hometown, during the 1980s, when the band had its closest brush with success. “Metal on Metal” was played on the radio here, and it’s quite possible I watched some of the archival television coverage (some of it featuring news anchor John Roberts, then known as J.D. Roberts) when it wasn’t archival. But I was no metalhead. I was into punk, and then new wave, and the metal “hair” bands of the 80s just seemed embarrassingly uncool to me. In this film, that uncoolness has been turned into charm. But it’s been a long hard road for Anvil.
Director Sacha Gervasi actually met the band in London in 1982, and then decided to work as a roadie for them on a cross-Canada tour. He lost touch about 1985, and then, 20 years later, decided to look up his old friends on the internet. What he discovered amazed him. They hadn’t given up. In fact, they were still making records and playing bars, even if it was only to crowds of 100. Gervasi, meanwhile, had travelled far from his metal roots. After attending law school, he got involved in the film business, recently writing the script for the Tom Hanks film The Terminal. He knew immediately he wanted to make a film about the band, and his personal connection with Anvil makes the film a loving tribute.
Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner were two Jewish kids growing up in Toronto in the 70s. They bonded over a love for the music of Black Sabbath and Grand Funk, and were soon writing songs together. More than 30 years and several lineup changes later, they’re still making music together. The film is as much a portrait of a lifelong friendship as it is about the cruelty of the music business. Through all the ups and (mostly) downs, Lips and Robb are like brothers. Gervasi picks up the story around 2005 when guitarist Ivan’s new Italian girlfriend Tiziana offers to arrange a European tour for them. Her passion overcomes their reservations about her inexperience, with predictable results. Transportation problems abound, and the crowds are always smaller than anticipated. Local promotion doesn’t come through, and the band are rarely paid. Despite that, Lips remains upbeat, happy to be touring at all.
After their return to Toronto, Anvil are ready to record their next album. They decide to approach engineer Chris Tsangarides, who recorded them early in their career, to see if he’s interested in working with them again. To their surprise, he’s interested, and after borrowing money from friends and family, the band fly to England to record their 13th album, cleverly entitled “This is Thirteen.” Another round of conflict between Robb and Lips ensues, but all ends in tearful hugs and the album is finished. Lips buzzes that the band has never sounded as good. Despite that, they can’t get any record companies interested in releasing it, so they decide to go direct and sell it themselves.
Throughout it all, Robb and especially Lips come across as incredibly open-hearted and even sweet guys. One memorable scene has Lips, in an attempt to earn some money, working as a telemarketer. He doesn’t last very long before he confesses that he’s just too honest. His somewhat goofy face may be the reason that the band never achieved the success of bands like Metallica or Anthrax or Slayer, but he’s incapable of being anyone else. Now in their 50s, Robb and Lips still haven’t cut their thinning hair, and though they look a bit out of place among their brothers and sisters, their families (especially their long-suffering wives) have been incredibly patient, if not always supportive.
The film ends with a lovely grace note. After receiving a call from a concert promoter in Japan, Anvil are invited to open a metal festival in front of a potential audience of 20,000. Gervasi poignantly inserts footage from the Super Rock tour of Japan the band played in 1984, and I swear that the goofy grin on Lips’ face is even wider now than it was then. When the lights came up, I was sporting my own goofy grin, as well as a small lump in the throat.
If there was anything missing from the film, it might be the absence of two of the three members of the unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Despite a reference early on from Robb about having to throw away his drugs during a border crossing in Europe, we never see any of the partying for which bands in general, and metal bands in particular, were legendary. These guys can still rock out, clearly, but it would have been interesting to see if they still party like young guys.
Just as an aside, during Anvil’s brief heyday in the early 80s, I was into a rockabilly-punk band from Hamilton called Teenage Head. Their career has had a similar trajectory, with lots of missed chances at fame, and an enduring legacy as “also-rans” among bands with arguably much less talent. Though I was never a roadie for them, this film has me thinking of making “Teenage Head! The Story of Teenage Head.” Frankie and Legs, get in touch!
Here is the Q&A with director Sacha Gervasi and the band from after the screening: