Friday, May 29, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (***)

Directed by Sacha Gervasi


They say that comedy comes from tragedy. One of the funniest films that I've ever seen, This Is Spinal Tap, follows this theory, as we watch a has-been 80's hair band trying to stay alive in the dog-eat-dog world of the music industry. With Anvil! The Story of Anvil, all we get is the tragedy. All we get is the torment which comes for the hunt of elusive fame. It's a harrowing tale about two men who refused to give up on their dreams, and planned to rock on till they die.

In 1984, a collection of 80's metal bands toured throughout Japan. Most of them, including Whitesnake, The Scorpions, and Bon Jovi, became huge hits, selling millions of records. Only one group on that tour did not become huge, and that band is Anvil. This film, directed by Anvil follower Sacha Gervasi, tells the story of what they're doing now. There is the lead singer and guitarist, Steve "Lips" Kudlow, who works delivering foods to elementary school cafeterias. There's also Robb Reiner, the band's drummer, who does odd jobs and paints. The two met in gradeschool, and swore to each other that they would rock till they were old... and now they're old.

In their hayday, Anvil was widely respected by their peer group, particularly their second album Metal On Metal. Acts like Metallica and Guns N Roses looked up to their style and their act, specifically Lips' eccentric on-stage act, which included leather, wrap-around suspenders and playing the guitar with a dildo. Unfortunately, outside of the metal underground, they never got the respect and success most of their fans feel they deserved. Why not? The band throws around many theories: including bad management, apathetic record labels, and overall ineptness. Either way, the two founders, even at age 50, still seek what has slipped through their fingers so often.

In the film, Anvil plans a tour throughout Sweden and the Czech Republic, in hopes that their performances will create some buzz, and convince a record label to release their thirteenth album, This Is Thirteen. The trip quickly becomes a disaster: they're late for shows, they miss their trains, they don't get paid, and they return home in the same position they were before. They decide to record and release their album themselves. Lips has to take a job as a telemarketer in order to pay for it.

As movie characters, Lips and Robb are magnanimous but temperamental, dedicated but crumbling. There are few people, I believe, who can be as motivated as these two are after spending about eighty percent of their lives pursuing one goal. They are both married with children. Their families are supportive, but don't have much in the way of optimism. The only thing they have is Anvil, and it prevents them from succumbing to the near-poverty that they live in.

I couldn't help but think of Spinal Tap as I watched this film. Not only because there's an amp that actually goes to 11. Not only because there is scene where the band visits Stonehenge in England. Not only because the director of Spinal Tap was also named Rob Reiner. No, what draws the two together is the way they explain how any torture can be overcome by what you love. You may seem pathetic, washed-up, and past your prime in your everyday life, but there is a whole new world atop the stage.

Interestingly enough, the film doesn't seem to care much about Anvil's music--none of their songs are ever played in the film fully. The director seems to think that it is the men themselves that are so important. He does lionize them to a point. I'm a firm believer that not everybody deserves popularity, even if they have talent. They are not shown as irresponsible druggies or bad husbands and fathers, but they do throw tantrums and do things to sabotage their own journeys. The presentation states that they are sympathetic, and it's not always easy to buy.

Lips and Rob find some success at a gig in Tokyo, Japan toward the end of the film, but there is never much in this film in the way of catharsis. Like I said, this is not a great "rockumentary", because it doesn't care about the actual music. What it is, is a portrait of a tragically quixotic couple of guys, who always sees the light at the end of the long, neverending tunnel.

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