Metallica. Slayer. Anthrax. The Scorpions. Even a casual fan of rock music knows that these names make up the pantheon of modern heavy metal, the bands that rose to the top and never looked back when metal swept away all before it in the 1980s.
But Anvil? Who has heard of them? Despite delivering the prototypical thrash-metal sound on their debut album and its followup (“666″ and “Metal on Metal”), despite playing alongside the above-mentioned bands in the mid-’80s, the Canadian band was fated to toil in obscurity for the next 25 years, thanks to bad management and bad timing.
That might have remained the case were it not for Sacha Gervasi and his incredible documentary on the band, “Anvil — The Story Of Anvil.” Gervasi, a huge fan of the band in his metalhead youth (he even roadied for them), had moved on to a Hollywood career, with his original screenplay “The Terminal” becoming a Stephen Spielberg project. Despite having other projects in the works, a chance re-connection with Anvil’s singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow led Gervasi to drop everything, pick up a camera, and follow the band on the road in 2005.
In an interview at Sony Music’s offices in the Nogizaka area of Tokyo, I asked Gervasi — a genial Londoner — if he knew what he was getting into and if he was sure he had a story.
“What I knew going in was that there is a certain kind of stereotype about heavy metal guys that hadn’t given up,” said Gervasi. “There were elements of ‘Spinal Tap,’ ‘American Movie’ and ‘Some Kind Of Monster’; there were these kind of touchstones.
“But I also knew, as people, they (Anvil) were so different than one might imagine them. I knew if the movie uncovered that, audiences would be surprised. I didn’t know how events would play out, but as it evolved, it became clear what the film was about.”
Gervasi followed the band on their disastrous European “comeback” tour in 2005, Lips’ unsuccessful stint in a call center trying to earn the money to go into the studio one more time, their attempts to record that album and get it signed, blowups and reconciliation between longtime buddies Lips and band drummer Robb Reiner, and a final note of hope as Anvil discovers — like Spinal Tap — they’re “big” in Japan.
Gervasi’s film finds much pathos in the musicians’ struggle to catch a break but never quite getting one, and also much comedy.
“You have to understand that people have a certain stereotype, and you have to play with that,” said the director. Indeed, a quick glance at Anvil’s album art or song titles (“Hair Pie,” “Toe Jam” or “Show Me Your Tits”) suggest an elaborate parody on the level of the “This Is Spinal Tap” mockumentary. With scenes like Lips playing his guitar with a vibrator, or Reiner discussing his hobby of painting — with pride of place given to a canvas of a big turd sitting in a toilet bowl, it’s easy to have a laugh at the band.
Gervasi remarked how “people think (metalheads) are really stupid, like the village idiots, sort of fringe, outsider losers. People come into the movie laughing at the guys, and the same audience, an hour later, is on their side, gunning for them to win. They’re moved by the authenticity of these guys; they’re doing what they believe in, and there’s a certain purity to that,” said Gervasi.
Indeed, the film stands as testament to the willpower and perseverance (or sheer bloody-mindedness) necessary to keep a band going for 25 years in the face of critical and industry indifference. And moreover, the level of friendship and trust necessary to keep a band together this long. In the film, we see Reiner endure Lips’ pipe-dream plans and prima-donna tantrums. We also see Lips do everything he can to mollify his friend when the taciturn drummer suddenly says he’s fed up and quitting.
In person, the duo are much as they are on film, with the motor-mouthed Lips running with every question, and Reiner throwing in a comment when he can.
Lips comments on what it takes to stay together for 25-plus years: “Frustration, anger, the human element, relationships in the band . . . all these things can be astronomically huge things to get over, nevermind the music business itself. Luckily for Robb and I, the goal is exactly the same. Two and two are four; he’ll say, three plus one is four. But it’s still the same answer! But we’ll argue about it anyway. We’re able to stand back and see that we both want the same thing; then onward we go. We’ve been able to do that for 30 years.
“In a certain sense, when the friendship is dead, the music is too. That’s why a lot of bands, as they grow older, that energy dissipates, because their friendship wanes.” To which Reiner adds: “A lot of bands, they just show up for the gigs; it’s like when you go to work with someone, y’know? They don’t even hang out with each other.”
Riding a new wave of interest and appreciation due to the success of the film, Anvil have been opening for AC/DC, and playing some massive stadium gigs, including the Loud Park festival in Japan, where the crowd went nuts for them. I ask them what it’s like playing metal for audiences less than half their age.
“I’m probably a bigger kid than the kids who come and watch us,” says Reiner, while Kudlow adds: “My motto is: Men never grow up, they just grow old. Like when I get together with my brother’s family, I feel more comfortable hanging out with the kids than I do with the adults.”
Gervasi, for his part, enjoys seeing the band on the bigger stages, especially compared to the tour documented in the film, when the band “were really hanging on by their nails.”
Regarding their gig at Loud Park, he says: “It was surreal, because it felt like a band that was happening now. It wasn’t like some retread from 25 years ago, like, ‘Oh, great, they can still play.’ It’s like it was a fresh, contemporary band. The energy of the film has kind of reflected back on them, and energized them, and now they’re like they were in their 20s. It’s amazing.”
“Anvil: The Story of Anvil” is now showing in Japan.
1. “This is Spinal Tap”
The first, and all-time classic, mockumentary, which involved Christopher Guest and friends forming a fake hard-rock band called Spinal Tap and director Rob Reiner copying Martin Scorsese’s interview style from actual rock-doc “The Last Waltz.” Guest and costar Michael McKean capture perfectly the narcissism, dazed blather and on-stage cliches of all the pampered rock gods of the era. The parody is so perfect that many of the bits here are now common parlance. (Amps that go up to 11, etc.) Personal fave: When McKean’s guitarist explains how his latest, saddest song is influenced by Mozart and Bach. And its title? “Lick My Love Pump.”
2. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”
While Anvil were scrabbling to raise a few pennies to record an album, Metallica were sitting in a custom-built studio twiddling their thumbs for months on end, documented in painful detail in this 2004 film. Frontman James Hetfield enters the studio, declares, “There’s such a vibe here” and then checks into rehab for a year. Upon his return, the band bring in a full-time therapist to try and improve relations between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. The spectacle of the hard-partying metal bad boys getting in touch with their feelings is not without amusement. Great “Spinal Tap”-esque scene as the band runs down a list of words that rhyme with “pain.”
3. “The Decline of Western Civilzation Part II: The Metal Years”
Lemmy, Ozzy, Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler, Gene Simmons, Dee Snider, Megadeth, Faster Pussycat — they’re all here, and saying some really ridiculous shizzbit. “Rock-n-roll is basically music made by people thinking with their crotches,” asserts Kiss singer Paul Stanley (lying in bed being stroked by three nymphs), and this film seeks to prove it. Director Penelope Spheeris covered Los Angeles’ underground punk scene in Vol. 1, but this 1988 doc captures the peak of metal’s decadent big hair moment. For instant gratification, check the free online version at Google Videos.