2008 // USA // Sacha Gervasi // May 13, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B+ - Much of the charm that vibrates in the bones of Sacha Gervasi's amused, melancholy documentary, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, is premised on the oddly ambiguous definition of success in the rock world. Sure, the eponymous Canadian metal group, now twenty-odd years past its peak in popularity, might be a failure by any yardstick one might select. Financially, they are a broke. Artistically, they're stuck on the cutting edge of 1982. Culturally, their name evokes the response, "Who?" (Though not from metal luminaries such as Slash and Lars Ulrich, who in the film's introduction hold forth on Anvil's key role during the early days of the genre.) Listen carefully, however, to lead guitarist and vocalist Steve "Lips" Kudlow's rambling, armchair philosophical assessment of the setbacks that have bedeviled the band. Simultaneously painfully self-aware and laughably oblivious, Kudlow is relentlessly optimistic about Anvil's success, even though he lacks a coherent conception of what that success might look like. Depending on the moment and his mood, "success" might mean cultural relevance, uncompromised integrity, a packed house, or an honest living. Regardless, one gets the sense that he will know it when he sees it. Despite first-time director Gervasi's gawking at the band's fundamentally kitschy character and its sad predicament, the thematic heart of Anvil! is humane stuff: success is a slippery thing, and the dogged pursuit of such an ineffable goal is rife with dizzying highs and miserable lows.
At one time, Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner were just a couple of middle-class Jewish kids in Toronto who loved metal. The band that they founded, Anvil, embodied the heavy sound and provocative stage presence that characterized the genre in the early 1980s, amplifying and toying with mainstream pop culture's expectations. (Kudlow was known to appear in bondage gear and play his guitar with a vibrator. 'Nuff said.) For obscure reasons, lasting success never materialized for the band. Gervasi posits that an arena concert in Japan alongside Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Whitesnake, and other contemporaries constituted the apex of Anvil's fame, to be followed by a steep decline. Original members took their leave, to be replaced by musicians who were Anvil fans themselves in their youth. Now fifty and looking every year of it, Kudlow lugs meals for a children's foodservice company by day, a job he despises with disarming frankness. Anvil is no longer his living, but rather his passion, purpose, and lifeline. (Although, tellingly, Kudlow proudly refers to the band's gigs as "work," and nothing seems to provoke his rage like a swindling club owner.)
Gervasi establishes all of this--both the Then and the Now--to preface a contemporary tale of Anvil's tribulations. The film is ostensibly about a disastrous European tour and the recording of the band's thirteenth album. Perhaps inevitably given the subject matter, Anvil! makes plenty of time for snickering at the sad-sack state of the band, and at Kudlow in particular. The viewer is introduced to a handful of spookily devoted fans, including one who offers Kudlow a repugnant telemarketing job when the frontman needs cash for studio time. We're left to wonder at the band's inexplicable trust in a tour manager they met online, a woman who barely speaks English, screams and sobs relentlessly, and is more interested in hooking up with the bassist than handling travel arrangements. And one can't resist cringing a little when Kudlow, hanging backstage at a Scandinavian rock festival, corners a more celebrated metal guitarist and regales him fanboyishly with the story of their first meeting, even when it's apparent the man hasn't the foggiest recollection.
In tone, then, Anvil! bears some resemblance to The King of Kong, in the sense that it gazes with almost unbearable discomfort at the personalities that dwell on the fringes of a subculture, with all the oddball details and half-baked â€œpersonal philosophiesâ€ that such a thing entails. Gervasi strives to build a narrative, much as Steve Gordon did for Kong, but that latter film had a natural hero and villain in Steve Weibe and Billy Mitchell, respectively, as well as plenty of ready-made drama. Kudlow is the hero of Anvil!, but there is no villain, other than the fickle nature of fame or perhaps Kudlow himself. Accordingly, Anvil! offers a documentary experience that feels somewhat aimless; which is fine, actually, given that the band's career has been fairly aimless. The result is a film about heavy metal that is surprisingly thoughtful, once the viewer wades through the endless bullshit that the band members use to obfuscate their angst, and that everyone else uses to screw them over. Fundamentally, Gervasi succeeds because he provides the space for this more pensive approach, allowing Kudlow, Reiner, and their families to muse on the nature of dedication, resilience, and accomplishment.
Although Gervasi indulges in a bit of manipulative editing and music, he also finds plenty of genuinely humane and wholly unexpected notes, such as Kudlow playing badminton with his young son in a cramped backyard, or Reiner's low-key pride when showing off his Hopper-inspired paintings. It's these sort of moments that provide a satisfying accent to the film's introspective elements, and a counterpoint to its forceful pathos. In this latter category, one might place Kudlow's elliptical confession of suicidal thoughts, followed by Reiner's blunt statement that he wouldn't permit such a thing, followed in turn by a tearful awkwardness that lingers between the two friends and rivals. What evinces Gervasi's skill more decisively than such reality-TV exchanges, however, is the manner in which he brings the viewer wholly into the band's trials, stirring the very anxiousness that the musicians feel as they approach the stage. How big will the crowd be? How loud will they cheer? How many CDs will we sell? On the most critical question, there is no doubt. Will we rock? Abso-fucking-lutely.