By James Rocchi (reposted from Sundance 2008)
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. -- John Milton, Paradise Lost
I'd rather be a king below than a servant above. -- Anvil, '666'
... Which is all well and good, but what about serving in hell? Anvil! The Story of Anvil is not just better than you'd think that a documentary about a 30-year-old Canadian metal band led by two lifelong friends in their 50's would be. It's better than most music documentaries. It's better than most documentaries, period. I am about as metal as your aunt, and I was spellbound by Anvil! The Story of Anvil -- laughing, yes, but also inspired to think and feel, literally moved to the edge of tears by the complicated-simple, stupid-smart, goofy-serious story that it tells thanks to Sascha Gervasi's inspired and impressive direction. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a documentary about a metal band, sure. And The Catcher in the Rye's about baseball.
Robb Reiner (drums) and Steve "Lips" Kudlow (guitar, vocals) met at 14 near Toronto; they formed a band. Anvil played heavy metal -- loud, fast -- and were both ahead of their time and behind the curve. They paved the way for bands like Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica (Scott Ian of Anthrax, Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Lemmy from Motorhead appear briefly to either endorse Anvil's music or character), but they watched as the bands they inspired went on to sell millions of records as Ulrich points out, "I don't know if it was an isolationist thing, because of the Canadian element. ..." Singing about being " ... from the land of the ice and snow ..." worked out remarkably well for Led Zeppelin; actually being from a land of ice and snow may have hurt Anvil's chances.
Whatever it was, it held them back. Anvil! The Story of Anvil begins with footage from a Japanese 1984 supertour, with a packed stadium being rocked by The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake ... and Anvil. Jump to the present, and Anvil are playing a sports bar in the Toronto suburbs for Lips's 50th birthday. It has been a long way from rocking the globe to playing in a sports bar with an acoustic tile drop ceiling. And, as Gervasi's film makes abundantly clear, there have been more than a few bumps on the way down. Anvil haven't stopped -- still playing, still writing, still trying. And the questions hover in the air: What keeps Anvil going? If their long-awaited time of glory didn't happen then, what makes the band think it's going to happen now? What's crueler -- dashed hopes or undashed ones?
The British rock writer Nick Kent observed that truly great Rock and Roll combines "the Byronic and the moronic." And Anvil may not have that equation set at 50-50; a large part of Anvil! The Story of Anvil revolves around a European tour that starts as a potential return to glory and ends like a flight from punishment. And I'm not much of a metal guy -- I was the guy beaten up by the metal guys, in fact, to such a degree that I still unconsciously flinch when I hear Sabbath -- but my easy dismissal of Anvil is easily kicked aside by one simple question: How many people showed up for my European tour? Oh, that's right -- I didn't have one. And Anvil did, in the '80s, and Anvil did in 2006.
Another director (if another director would have even bothered) would have focused on the metal-mockery inherent to Anvil's tale. And yes, we see a dial go up to 11, and there's a visit to Stonehenge. But suggesting that Anvil! The Story of Anvil is ripping off This is Spinal Tap is like suggesting that real maple syrup is ripping off whatever pours out of Mrs. Butterworth. Anvil is the real deal; Anvil came first, and -- inspiringly, terrifyingly -- Anvil never quit. Like another brilliant rock doc, Dig!, Anvil! The Story of Anvil perfectly delineates, in scarily precise detail, the minute but incredibly relevant difference between obscurity and complete obscurity.
And then, suddenly, you realize that Anvil: The Story of Anvil isn't about metal; it's about hope. It's not about rock; it's about belief. It's not about dreams; it's about work, sacrifice, friendship. Gervasi actually spent time as a roadie for Anvil in the '80s, and while that must have helped him get his foot in the door with the band, he kicked it the rest of the way open himself. Gorgeously shot, possessed of both deadpan comedy and real insight, Gervasi's film is as fair -- and unflinchingly honest -- as you would want a real friend to be. (Reiner explains his band's dire straits on their European tour to a fan asking why they're in such reduced circumstances: "I can answer that in one word. Two words. Three: We don't have good management.") And Anvil's music may not be my cup of white-hot metal, but Robb and Kudlow's perseverance moved me: They have not simply hung onto dreams, they have hung on to day jobs. They've been friends to each other and good to their families. And finally, most importantly, in a world that says 'quit,' they have not.
Early in Anvil! The Story of Anvil, we see the band play a Romanian venue that could hold thousands ... for a crowd of 174 people. At the end of the film, the band has been asked to play in Japan yet again ... at 11:35 AM, opening up an all-day festival at a venue that can hold 20,000 people. As the band walks through the backstage corridors to rock the crowd, the audience held its breath: Would there be a real crowd to see Anvil, or just another long-distance disappointment? I'm not going to say either way, but what Gervasi makes clear is that to the band -- and to us -- it doesn't, and shouldn't, matter. The most important part of the Milton quote above, ripped off by Anvil, isn't heaven or hell or rule or serve; it's rather. Anvil would rather do what they're doing than not, rather try than give up, rather create something than stop. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a hymn to the human spirit, played loud in power chords.