Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Sweetness, humor lighten 'Anvil!'

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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Humiliation is a daily fact of life if you're a 50-year-old headbanger whose band never made it big. You attract 174 fans to an arena that holds 10,000. Your day job is delivering hot food to public schools in the greater Toronto area. You get a part-time gig working as a telemarketer for one of your longtime fans - and you last three days.

"I've been trained my whole life to be polite," explains Steve "Lips" Kudlow about that last mishap, which seems unduly modest given that we've seen him playing slide guitar with a dildo in the opening scenes of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." Like that beautiful, mischievous title - it's Zen meathead poetry, really - Sacha Gervasi's documentary stares down abject failure until it becomes a tattered form of grace. "Anvil!" is one of the sweetest, funniest films I've seen this year. Also the loudest and most foulmouthed.

Despite having the trappings of "Spinal Tap"-style parody - the drummer's name is Robb Reiner, for pity's sake - Anvil was and is a real band. Led by Kudlow and Reiner, it roared hoarsely out of Canada in the early 1980s and was poised to achieve greatness alongside its bludgeoning peers Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth. Indeed, successful metalheads like Metallica's Lars Ulrich testify in the film to Anvil's influence. Admits Slash of Guns N' Roses, "Everybody ripped them off and left them for dead."

Lips would probably say thanks, but I'm not dead yet. A rubber-faced optimist with the bounce of a large, overcaffeinated sheepdog, he remains certain that rock godhood is just around the corner, even as his wife and family make vague noises about moving on. He and Reiner have been friends since adolescence, and it's as though they're still practicing air-guitar moves in each other's mirrors.

There's a fan base out there of sorts, though. An Eastern European Anvil idolator named Tiziana arranges an overseas tour at 1,500 euro a pop - in theory. The band saddles up and heads out, only to get bogged down in misbegotten club dates where they don't get paid, prompting Lips to complain that "this is so unfair to Anvil," and Reiner to isolate the problem as "Three words: We haven't got good management."

Director Gervasi is himself a lifelong fan, and his sympathetic approach extends to interviewing family members and dumpster diving in the archives. It's one thing to hear Lips's grown siblings - an accountant, a businesswoman, and an endocrinologist - marvel at their brother's refusal to grow up. It's another to see the singer's bar mitzvah home movies or hear Reiner tell how his father, an Auschwitz survivor, gave unconditional blessing to his son's thundering life path.

As "Anvil!" rolls along, though, you can see the fear growing in Lips's eyes. Desperate to record again, he enlists the services of legendary heavy metal producer Chris Tsangarides, who made the band's second album in 1982. In classic Lennon/McCartney tradition, Lips and Reiner fight bitterly and make up mawkishly. "Here we sit in our [expletive] 50s and we're gonna be rock stars," Lips insists. "It's our [expletive] dream! And I'm going to make it come true!"

There at last is the real subject of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." How long can you stretch the eternal teenage daydream of noise and outrageous fame before it snaps and you have to trudge back to the real world? How long before the last fan starts listening to someone new? Gervasi manages the trick of portraying the band's predicament with blunt, cleareyed hilarity while simultaneously wishing them the very best. He gives these aging, hopeful children the saving grace of a happy ending, but his real achievement is showing us they deserve one.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL Directed by: Sacha Gervasi

Starring: Steve "Lips" Kudlow, Robb Reiner

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 80 minutes

Unrated (as R: pervasive language, brief nudity)