There are two words that I hate in movie reviews: heart and pretentious. I’ll be using both these words in Sundance Film Festival reviews, and it bums me out. But the truth for the use of the word heart is that I am just not a good enough writer to find other language to describe Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a Canadian heavy metal band that plays like a real life Spinal Tap… and which brought tears to my eyes.
Anvil has been around for thirty years. Bands like Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer and Guns ‘n Roses call them a major influence, but almost no one else has heard of them. The members of the band all work day jobs and can’t get their records released, but even as they enter their 50s they hold on to the dream of being rock and roll stars. Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner* have been best friends since they were 14 and have been the backbone of the band for decades. They’re bickering brothers, and the way their friendship is tested by the ups and downs of the band’s fate provides a surprisingly emotional throughline.
The movie often feels like it’s quoting Spinal Tap. A drummer named Robb Reiner will raise anyone’s eyebrows, as will the mixing board that goes to 11, the visit to Stonehenge or the walk through the bowels of a stadium where the band shouts out ‘Hello Cleveland!’ But the band is real, and this documentary is not tongue in cheek. Director Sacha Gervasi first met the band back when he was a 15-year old fan, and he loves these guys, even when he recognizes how goofy they can be. Anvil tours Europe, and it’s a Spinal Tap-ian disaster, Lips delivers classic dopey rock guy line after dopey rock guy line (‘Family’s important shit, man!’). I’ve heard rumors around the festival that Spinal Tap was at least partially based on Anvil, so it makes lots of sense that the documentary about the band would echo the mockumentary classic. What’s funny is that Anvil! The Story of Anvil actually makes you appreciate how right on the money Spinal Tap is (although, honestly, you should have had this figured out years ago, dummy).
Some people have been comparing Anvil! The Story of Anvil to American Movie, and while there is a connection in that both films are about insanely driven dreamers who seem unaware of the reality of their situation, I have always felt that American Movie is cruel in its approach. That movie is laughing at Mark Borchardt instead of empathizing with him. That’s not a complaint, but there’s no cruelty in Anvil!, and while the movie is often hilarious, you feel for the band in a really loving and not pathetic way. These are good guys, and all they want is to be rock stars. And the truth is that they probably should have been bigger – for their style of metal, Anvil’s quite good. But the cards get dealt in a certain way and anyone who has ever tried to do something daring and artistic will have nothing but empathy for these guys who will not stop – empathy and maybe even more than a little respect.
That’s what leaves me with that word I hate using, heart. You spend time laughing at the buffoonery of Anvil, but you love them. When Robb and Lips have a major fight while recording what they hope will be their breakthrough album, you’re laughing at these two 50 year old metalheads getting so emotional over nothing… but you also feel for them as wounded people. The movie got to me in a major way, and I walked out of the film a big fan of Anvil – not necessarily for their music but for that heart, for the way that they won’t quit, the way that they’re decent people doing the best they can, the way they believe in themselves despite the constant face slappings delivered by the universe. This is a feel-good film of rockin’ proportions. If anybody deserves success, it’s Anvil, and if any Sundance film deserves good distribution it’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil.