Sunday, June 28, 2009

On the Big Screen: ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008-9)

Mondo 70 presents its first-ever guest review, the occasion being the local release of a highly-acclaimed documentary about a band that could be and probably has been called a "real-life Spinal Tap," right down to the uncanny coincidence of its drummer being named Robb Reiner. The reviewer is "Hobbyfan," who will be recognized for posting occasional comments on this blog. He's one of my correspondents with whom I have regular real-world contact, and I've been encouraging him to start his own blog. This he has agreed to do, so look out for the debut of "The Land of Whatever" in the immediate future. For now, here's his take on Anvil. We saw it together at the Spectrum theater in Albany in the second week of its run, with an audience of less than ten people total.


photo by Brent J. Craig.

They say that in show business, you've got to have a gimmick. In the 80's, it wasn't enough to call yourself a heavy metal band. You had to have some sort of gimmick to stand out from the rest. That's why you saw the emergence of "hair bands" like Bon Jovi (who've since lost the long hair and are more of a pop-rock combo), and "glam bands" like Motley Crue & Twisted Sister.Anvil didn't fit into either of those categories. They were a group of average guys from Canada trying to make it big. The closest they had to a gimmick was lead singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow wearing a bondage collar and using a dildo on his guitar. Kudlow and drummer/co-founder Robb Reiner had been friends since they were teens, and despite the arguments and disputes that come with the territory, they stuck it out, never giving up the dream.

"Anvil: The Story of Anvil" opens with the band sharing a bill at a 1984 concert with the Scorpions, Whitesnake (who'd actually break through 3 years later), and Bon Jovi, who were just starting out and had released their debut album. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich may have actually hit the nail on the head when he suggested that maybe what held Anvil back was the fact they were from Canada. The Great White North had given us in the 80's acts as diverse as Triumph, Bryan Adams, April Wine, and the McKenzie Brothers. Triumph was the closest thing to a metal band that Canada had to offer, though Anvil kept pounding on the door. What hurt Anvil more was a glaring lack of faith from the independent labels that signed them, and poor management. Yet still they soldiered on.

Anvil's story, really, is no different than the dozens, nay, hundreds of bands of every genre trying to make it in the business every day, every year. All the hard work that goes into cutting demos, rehearsing, booking gigs, etc., has to have a payoff somewhere. It's the fact that Anvil had been on the doorstep of fame 25 years ago, then disappeared practically overnight, that makes this story, coupled with Kudlow's unwavering vision. It speaks to the blue collar, aspiring musicians who've endured the same hardships, though perhaps not as extreme as Anvil's, in their quests to make the big time. Rating: A.
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Hobbyfan adds: "I happen to think that the target audience in our market (mostly aspiring musicians), if they haven't seen it, will wait for the DVD. That's where this film will make most of its money."

For my part, the movie reminded me a lot of The Wrestler, though that may just have been because of all the hair. I think Hobbyfan has the right perspective on the band's predicament. I watched the film wondering what was exceptional about them that they didn't make it when their apparent peers did. I was looking for a "why" that the film never really decides upon. But Hobby reminds us that Anvil really belongs to the great majority that never make it, though they came closer than many. The band and by extension director Sacha Gervasi blame their failure (to date) on poor management and poor production, but that really begs as many questions as it answers. My own view is that, from what I heard of the songs, Kudlow is just a crap lyricist, but whether he's really much worse than more successful writers I can't say. In any event, I don't judge the movie by the case it made, but by the picture it presents, and Anvil is an often hilariously tragicomic portrait of perseverance in pursuit of fame. The band's travels in Europe, Asia and Canada give the film some of the flavor of an old-school mondo movie, and it raises some of the same questions about whether dramatic scenes were really spontaneous or whether events were manipulated by knowledge of the documentary being made. Those questions don't stop the film from being very entertaining, whether you come out liking Anvil or not.

Here's a British trailer, uploaded by WorksUK

9 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

Fantastic review, Hobbyfan. This is not and probably won't be playing near me, so I eagerly await the DVD. I can't wait!

hobbyfan said...

Thank you, Rev. Phantom.

BJC said...

Anvil Photo by Brent J. Craig

Samuel Wilson said...

Duly acknowledged, BJC.

BJC said...

Thanks! Brian is close enough to Brent.

Samuel Wilson said...

My head is not on straight today, and here I should note that the responsibility for the picture selection and haphazard crediting lies with me, not Hobbyfan. Apologies all around.

The Vicar of VHS said...

I've been looking forward to this since I first heard about it months ago, and will also be checking it out on DVD.

As to why some make it and some don't, in music I'm sure it's the same as in fiction writing and movie making and any other creative endeavor: talent is important, but not nearly as important as sheer dumb luck. Plenty of fantastic bands/writers/directors have never had that unique confluence of luck and timing that pushes often less-talented peers into the limelight. And goodness knows plenty of crap gets put on shelves and screens of every sort that didn't deserve to be there nearly as much as the output of some other hardworking but just-not-as-lucky artist who faded into obscurity.

Back when I still thought I might be able to be a novelist someday, I realized that trying to get an agent or get a publisher interested was something akin to trying to be struck by lightning for a living. Not that I'm bitterly disappointed or anything. ;)

Crhymethinc said...

They didn't make it because they're simply not that good. I remember buying a couple of their cassettes back around '84/'85, during my metal years. They didn't quite suck, but they were simply not as interesting or literate as, say Iron Maiden, they weren't as technically adept as bands like Metallica or Megadeath, they weren't as brutal as Slayer, et. al. Their music just didn't grab any part of me. They didn't make me angry or horny or melancholy or boisterous or happy. I didn't find myself singing along with the lyrics or punching my fist in the air or banging my head even slightly. They weren't a flavor of the week, but more like a drab aftertaste of the flavor of a few weeks ago...

Samuel Wilson said...

Crhymethinc's comments are interesting in light of the tesimonials from metal legends in favor of Anvil throughout the movie. Many of these people saw Anvil as their peers and possibly their superiors as of 1984 -- or at least so they say now. Admittedly, however, none of them said that the band had great lyrics or anything like that. Instead, they admired Anvil for technical proficiency and a certain intensity in performance. It may only prove that in performing arts a jury of peers isn't necessarily the most objective kind.

The Vicar speaks of luck, and one of the perhaps unsatisfactory aspects of the documentary is that it doesn't really determine whether luck or personal failings were to blame for Anvil's fate. I should consider that an admirable ambivalence, but I may be conditioned to expect more decisive answers from such projects. Most likely we're just meant to look at Lips and Robb and draw our own conclusions.