The music of the band Anvil does not explain the popularity of the cheekily titled Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which has taken up residency at downtown Manhattan's Angelika Film Center for more than a month. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, a British screenwriter responsible for Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, Anvil is a documentary about a Canadian heavy metal band that influenced Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax but never hit the big time. Led by the singer/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and the drummer Robb Reiner (not the director of This is Spinal Tap, but you're forgiven for wondering), high school friends from 30 years back who vowed to rock together forever, Anvil is years past its prime as a bawdy rock 'n' roll juggernaut, but the guys remain driven by their undiminished passion. If they have to work day jobs as caterers and construction workers to fund their dreams, so be it.
Though some have described the film as a real-life Spinal Tap, the Anvil story is less about the silliness of heavy metal - the band's quick detour to Stonehenge notwithstanding - than the bonds of friendship. In the face of limited resources and overwhelming pressures, the irrepressible, spirited Lips and the genuinely gifted Reiner work together to mute their egos and work out their differences. As one of the film's talking heads puts it, what band, other than The Rolling Stones and The Who, could stay together for this long?
Their devotion is contagious. After the film showed at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, The New York Times called the documentary "the talk of the shuttle buses". Bona fide rock stars such as Trent Reznor, John Mayer, Lady Sovereign, and, yes, Hoobastank have encouraged their Twitter followers to go see Anvil. On its opening weekend, the film boasted the best per-theatre box office average of any film in the country. This week, Lips and Reiner played a live show after a screening at Los Angeles' Nuart Theater, and then appeared on ABC's late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live.
But if Anvil is inching closer and closer to that elusive stardom, does it have anything to do with the band's music? As heartbreaking as Anvil! The Story of Anvil can be, the movie remains coy on the subject of whether or not the group actually rocks. We hear testimony to the power of their first few records from Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Lemmy from Motörhead, and Scott Ian from Anthrax, but we never hear a full Anvil song.
Part of the movie's power comes from the fact that what little we do hear isn't very good. When the band meets with a major Canadian record label, it's painful to watch him shut off the stereo after Lips's zealous but somewhat grating voice kicks in. In another scene, the radio station KNAC enthusiastically premières the songs from Anvil's new record. But off-screen, a KNAC staffer wrote a sympathetic but negative review: "It's with a heavy heart that I have to say that this album, despite its good intentions, is lacking something solid." And when the guys appeared on Jimmy Kimmel's show, they were asked to talk about their struggle, and not to perform their music.
With that in mind, I worry about the next step for the band. The movie is already a bona fide cult classic, and might help make Anvil a small-scale sensation for the next few months. Lips and Reiner have already proudly quit their day jobs, been booked at major rock festivals, and elicited interest from some of the same major labels who refused to put out their earlier records. Are they just setting themselves up for further disappointment?
The success of Anvil the movie is not the success of Anvil the band, but it would be a mistake to call the documentary exploitative. In fact, the movie is a true labour of love, but that fact doesn't become apparent until the end of the film's closing credits when we glimpse a teenage Gervasi smiling in a photograph with a youthful Lips. As the story goes, Gervasi crawled his way backstage after a 1982 Anvil show in London and ended up giving the band a tour of his native city. The next summer - in a setup reminiscent of Almost Famous - young Gervasi was invited to tour the US as Anvil's roadie. The future screenwriter and director soon grew out of his heavy metal phase, and, like much of the music world, lost touch with Anvil. But the boys in the band never quite grew up. And therein lies their appeal.