Pros: Great story, interesting characters.
Cons: could be a slightly more focused in spots.
I knew absolutely nothing about the heavy metal band Anvil when I sat down to watch Sacha Gervasi's documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. In fact, I wasn't entirely sure the group was real and not some elaborately concocted p*ss-take trying to one-up the boys from Spinal Tap-until I started watching it. There's a definite undercurrent of "this is too bizarre to be real" running through Anvil, but it is, and the story of lifelong friends and wannabe heavy metal gods Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner is touching and sad and tragic and uplifting-often all at once. Anvil may not be the greatest documentary ever made, but it certainly tells a compelling story that even non-metal-heads like myself can relate to.
The film opens with footage of Anvil playing a huge Monsters of Rock-styled show in Japan back in the early ‘80s. Lips is running about in a bondage harness and strumming his axe with a sex toy while Reiner whales away on the drums. They look and sound like your typical metal band and we soon learn that they played this show alongside groups who went on to mega-fame and metal immortality. Unfortunately, Anvil got left in the wake. Icons of the scene (such as Metallica's Lars Ulrich and Guns ‘n Roses' Slash) testify to Anvil's influence on the genre as a whole (and on them personally), yet we soon find that present day Kudlow and Reiner are working menial jobs while still chasing a dream that seems to get farther away with each step they take in its pursuit.
What could become a depressing documentary about giving up on your dreams when the chase becomes futile (or even worse, an elaborate joke at Kudlow and Reiner's expense) is instead a heartwarming tale about friendship, hope, never giving up (even when you probably should), and most of all, the love of metal.
The primary reason Anvil works as well as it does is because of Kudlow. The Canadian frontman is in his 50s now, and life has dealt him a string of terrible blows when it comes to his music career, but he's so damn optimistic and likeable that you can't help but root for him. When a fan schedules a European tour for the band (with disastrous results-they don't get paid, and their biggest show draws 174 people), Kudlow comes home disappointed by how it turns out-but then gives it a positive spin by saying something to the effect of "yeah, the tour may have sucked, but at least we had a tour to go on..." Understanding this facet of Kudlow's personality early on makes Anvil much more compelling-whenever something occurs later in the story, something that makes you think these guys should hang it up once and for all, you now understand why Kudlow doesn't. The cynical amongst us will no doubt find him at least somewhat delusional in his continued efforts to push the group to stardom, but the reality is that he's just a guy with a dream who refuses to let it go until he's played every last card in the hand he's been dealt.
Gervasi captures the spirit of Anvil in a way that showcases the complexity of their situation and personalities. Kudlow struggles to keep chasing his life's ambition, while his family supports him yet also seems to feel as though it might be time to move on to something else. Reiner is less of a focus, but serves as a great foil to Kudlow. He's more grounded than his best friend in terms of connection with the mundane world, which makes for a nice counterbalance to Kudlow's more manic personality (that he's manic isn't surprising-he's the front man in a metal band, after all). Gervasi has done a nice job of showing us not only the life of struggling rock musicians in the film, but how that struggle affects their families and the lives they're forced to live while they wait for their big break. Aside from a scene where Kudlow and Reiner nearly come to blows (followed by a mawkish reconciliation), the film avoids many of the clichéd pitfalls one would expect to find in this kind of story. The families are generally supportive of the two men (even if they think they're chasing something they'll never catch). There's no villainous voice of reason telling the boys they're crazy and that it's time to grow up. There are no drugs or groupies or any of the normal accoutrements one would expect to find in a movie about a metal band at all. There's just some loud music and two guys who refuse to quit.
That's what makes Anvil: The Story of Anvil so compelling-it's not really a story about a heavy metal band at all. The metal band is just the background for what is instead a story about chasing your goals and believing in yourself even when it feels as though the rest of the world is indifferent to what you're trying to accomplish. That message reaches far beyond the world of hair bands and electric guitars-and it's one that I wish more of us would hear and take to heart.