When Tom Araya heaps hosannas on Anvil – an obscure quartet of scrawny heavy-metal Canucks, one of whom once played his Flying V with a dildo – it feels like a goof. For that matter, so does the film’s redundant title – Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
After all, it’s difficult to hear any influence Slayer took from Steve “Lips” Kudlow’s clownish Bruce Dickinson-ian screech of Anvil’s calling card, “Metal on Metal.” Or what Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich truly idolized about “Tag Team” or “666” aside from the propulsive double-bass assault by drummer Robb “Geza” Reiner. (Cosmic coincidence with Spinal Tap is noted with an amp knob that, yes, goes to 11.)
Let’s be honest: Anvil’s moment in the sun was as a goony group with “wacky” nicknames, outrageous onstage gimmicks and a passel of alliteration-heavy album titles (e.g., Pound for Pound, Plugged in Permanent, Plenty of Power). They are not metal’s missing link, as is fleetingly suggested by these film-opening testimonials.
What they are – represented by original-members-standing Kudlow and Reiner seeking spotlight heat once again – are grounds for fertile, humane comedy.
Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! seeks to tread the same askew ground as American Movie, but that movie dealt with eccentric artists who’d never had any success, no matter how fleeting. Plus, Anvil! lacks some chops as an objective, true representation of reality.
It falls prey to the hero worship and, at times, reeks of fraudulence that Anvil sends out literal tapes as demos or never before thought of reteaming with the best producer they’d ever had. (Chris “CT” Tsangarides seems friendly, but likely agreed only upon hearing “film crew.”)
However, Kudlow and Reiner’s conviction fueled by day-job desperation is uncomfortable, uproarious and legitimate. Kudlow is a catering-company driver, delivering bananas and shepherd’s pie. Reiner’s paintings fill his perpetually under-construction house. Anvil exists now only on stages crammed into Canadian clubs.
Kudlow’s chipped-tooth grill makes him look silly even when serious, and Reiner looks like a weary, paunchy cousin to the Edge. They act like bitter beer-breathed roadies themselves around dimming luminaries like Michael Schenker and Carmine Appice. So you can imagine what fans of theirs – nicknamed “Cut Loose” and “Mad Dog,” who’ve seen 300 Anvil shows – look like.
What should be a spoils-filled romp for Anvil through Europe’s speed-metal stronghold instead becomes a stranglehold to the band. That’s the peril of choosing, as your manager, an obsessive fan who uses the tour as courtship for the rhythm guitarist. A proposed 1,500 Euros per gig turns into five weeks of work with no pay, no label interest and, to cap it off, a crowd of 174 at a venue that holds 10,000.
When Kudlow and Reiner’s tempers thunder – as they do for the first of many times here – so does Anvil! Call them the Simmer Twins, their friendship careening from creative closeness to outright hostility.
Each is a Canadian Jew that has transubstantiated a father’s persistence into a troubled, mostly fruitless pursuit of rock success. In its finest sequences, Anvil! lays bare their tempestuous push-and-pull, along with the understandably short fuses of their wives and families – the ones making the mortgage on this deferred dream.
Noodling on this theme, Gervasi finds some truly moving minutiae. There’s no jokiness in Kudlow’s held gaze on a downward elevator button; Anvil’s life is a constant series of journeys back to the bottom floor. And when they squeeze out all of 10 seconds of This is Thirteen (their family-financed, Tsangarides-produced “comeback”) for an EMI Canada executive, it’s clear this will be yet another failure.
While it’s not in jeopardy that Anvil will somehow make a triumphant return by documentary’s end, the unanswered question that persists is whether they can sustain it.
Both fiftysomethings, Kudlow and Reiner realize the clock is ticking on the idea of resurrection. Plus, on a grand scale, will they be able to reconcile rowdy rock ‘n’ roll personas with their family-man personalities? Perhaps that can be documented in a sequel that’s more documentary, less comedy.