It’s not a joke. I must admit I had to do some research as to whether or not Anvil! The Story of Anvil was a documentary or a “mockumentary,” à la This is Spinal Tap (the similarities abound). Something about heavy metal bands in the early 1980s just seems too ridiculous to be real. Maybe it’s the hair. Maybe it’s the lyrics. Maybe it’s the fact that within the film’s first five minutes, we behold a man ecstatically playing an electric guitar with a dildo. But seriously, folks: Anvil was/is a real band, and rock they do, rock they have, for close to 30 years. You’ve got to respect that.
As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Robb Reiner will be at the drums while Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow will be at the mic and lead guitar. By the end of this film, you will have accepted that Anvil is one of the few constants in this world on which you can depend. So, how talented is the band? How good, actually, is the music? Well, this is sort of beside the point, and savvy director Sacha Gervasi knows it, wisely avoiding any real, prolonged focus on the band’s music or performances. When you do hear a song or witness a performance, your reaction may well be, “Alright, thrash metal, early 80s, got it,” but what’s going to make you love, truly love this band is not their talent, it’s their pure passion for what they do. Surprisingly enough, the fact that these guys happen to be passionate about being rock stars feels ultimately incidental and perhaps one of the film’s least significant, non-essential details. Almost too wacky to be real, what matters here are the characters, and what characters they are.
When it comes to woefully/admirably far gone, quixotic protagonists, Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow is one for the ages. Since the age of 14, Steve — a nice Jewish boy from Toronto, now a boy in his 50s — has wanted to be a world-famous rock star. It was then that Steve met the love of his life: his best friend and perpetual partner-in-rock, his Sancho Panza, drummer Robb Reiner. By their early 20s, in 1982, Steve and Robb sort of were world-famous rock stars. (Anvil played with the likes of Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister.) But then … they weren’t anymore.
Early in the film, Slash (yes, that Slash) explains, “As big of an influence as they had on everybody, everybody just sort of ripped them off and then just left them for dead.” This “everybody” to which Slash refers: little bands like Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica. It’s sad really, Gervasi suggests: to kick open a door that you yourself do not manage to pass through, pushed aside by so many others, arguably more talented, rushing past. Tragic? Ironic? You bet. Perhaps men of lesser souls would have succumbed to raging, bitter despair — but not Steve and Robb. No, the tragedy of Anvil’s thwarted destiny has only served to ennoble them in the intervening decades. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a frontman of any band, any genre, who smiles larger or brighter than Steve ‘Lips’ when he’s performing, whether to a crowd of tens of thousands or a crowd of, well, tens.
Ultimately, subjects Steve and Robb live their lives by what message the film Anvil! The Story of Anvil insists: True joy comes not from external validation, not from a million screaming fans, but rather, from within — from one’s own single screaming heart. It doesn’t matter what your “thing” is that makes your heart scream: what matters is whether you have the courage to keep doing it, no matter what. Yes indeed, you’ve got to respect that.