Tuesday night at the Egyptian in Hollywood erupted into one of the most purely fun evenings I’ve had out in a while, a great film followed up by the perfect cherry on the cake, a live performance by the band from the documentary we’d just watched. Anvil is an anomaly, an influential and widely-referenced metal band from the 80s, known by guys who went on to real fame, and yet they never made it. They never became a viable commercial presence. They never figured out how to do what Anthrax and Megadeth and Metallica and Iron Maiden all figured out how to do. They never figured out how to turn their chops, their sound, their love of metal, into something more. They had one huge moment, when they went on a Japanese tour with Bon Jovi and the Scorpions and a ton of other giant bands. Everyone else on that tour… every other band… went on to sell a bazillion copies of things. Everyone except Anvil.
And here’s what the film plays like… it’s so good and so well-crafted, that I came home and poked around to see if I believe in Anvil, or if I think they’re a beautifully crafted mockumentary. We live in the age of the put-on, of course, and the drummer for Anvil, one of the main characters in this film, is named Robb Reiner. So can you understand a wee bit of paranoia on my part?
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I should have known better after the evening I just had. And I only asked because I really fell for the movie, just loved it. Start to finish. As soon as it started, I was hooked. Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are the backbone of Anvil, the guys who were there from the start in the early ’70s, when they were kids just learning how to play in the first place. And in the film, we meet a lot of the guys who have played with them along the way, including Ivan Hurd and Glenn Five, who fill out the band during the majority of the film. Lips is the guy who is basically the band’s driving personality, the thing that keeps it moving forward. He’s got a volatile, complicated relationship with Robb that flares up a few times during the movie, always threatening to ruin everything, ruin the friendship, ruin the band, ruin the dream… but of course never really doing it. Lips turns 50 during the making of the film, and he takes it pretty well, throwing a rock-and-roll party that would make anyone feel good. But the reality is starting to sink in. He’s 50. He still hasn’t made it. They don’t even have a recent CD they feel good about. Every now and then, though, you see the cracks in that facade. Every so often, Lips lets his guard down, and you see all the stress and all the sorrow and all the pain of struggling at this thing he loves for 30 years without success, and in those moments, you realize that this is no “Spinal Tap.” This is not the story of a bunch of losers. This is the story of real people whose real love of what they do is a double-edged sword, one that hurts them over and over, but that they can’t possibly live without. “Anvil” isn’t just a great documentary about life on the fringe of rock-and-roll… it’s a phenomenal movie about what living on the fringe of anything will do to you after enough time passes.
And I understand. Believe me… if anyone does, I do. I’m turning 40 next year. And no matter what happens this year or next year or the next five years, I’m always going to have to live with the fact that I did not accomplish what I most desperately wanted to accomplish in this business. I may yet end up writing and directing. I may not. But right now, I can look back at what I have accomplished and the rational part of my brain says, “Hey, look at that, you won awards as a playwright, you’ve worked with John Carpenter, you’ve had three things you’ve written produced, and all three of them at least resembled what you originally wrote. You’ve succeeded!” And the other part of my brain, the part that first fell in love with movies, looks at what the rational part says and just laughs. “Success? You’re a fat kid with his nose pressed flat against the window of the candy store. You can see the candy. You can smell the candy. And you can write about the candy. But it’s not your candy, and it never will be.” I am lucky that I fell into this side career of writing about films, because without this outlet, I can’t imagine where I’d be or what I’d be doing. Or maybe writing about films has derailed me, and if I hadn’t started doing this almost 14 years ago, maybe I would have focused my energies a different way, and I would be writing and directing already. Who knows? And honestly… what does speculating about it change? We take the paths we take, and for Lips, that means he works as a truck driver for a catering company that delivers food to public schools. For Robb Reiner, he’s got his painting and his drumming, and he seems at peace with that. And for me… well, for me, I’ll take inspiration from this movie, enough to keep moving forward, one pitch, one script, one meeting at a time, and I’ll refuse to be discouraged.
There’s a moment late in this film when, for once, everything goes exactly right for the band. By that point in the movie, we’re accustomed to seeing them have their “Anvil moments,” where things just don’t go right, and we’re so conditioned by the new wave of cringe comedy to expect the worst that I found myself tense, leaned forward in my seat, almost afraid of what was about to happen. And then… things go right. The exact best case scenario unfolds. And the joy and the relief and the pleasure that pours off the screen justifies every unhappy day we’ve seen these guys suffer up to that point. It all just falls away, and when you look at Lips while he’s playing, or at Robb, you see the simple happiness of those two teenaged kids, in a garage, realizing that they can make music.
Sacha Gervasi, who directed the film, was at the premiere last night, and before he spoke, Keanu Reeves got up to tell us about how Sacha spent his teenage summers as a roadie for Anvil on three successive Canadian tours. There’s an image of Sacha with the band as a teenager at the end of the film, and that one image explains why he was able to make such an affectionate film about this obscure band, and why they trusted him when they’re so laid bare emotionally throughout the film. They knew he wasn’t going to make them into easy punchlines, and he resists that urge. There are a number of moments that are very funny, but it’s all inclusive humor. Lips is a funny guy, and the metal scene itself is sort of inherently funny. But Gervasi never looks down on these guys, so there’s nothing in the film that makes me feel embarrassed for them. They’re living their lives on their terms, and the idea of still chasing that dream is celebrated by this movie, not mocked by it. The camerawork by Christopher Soos is stunning, and he manages to make Anvil look like rock icons when they’re doing simple things like walking around Prague or taking a walk in a field. It’s a surprisingly visual experience, something many documentaries don’t emphasize at all, and Soos deserves special attention for his work here.
After the film played last night, Anvil came out and played us a mini-set right there at the Egyptian. There was a time in my life when I was way into metal. I followed Metallica around on a Florida tour one year. I’ve seen Maiden, and Anthrax, and Suicidal Tendencies, and Megadeth, and Slayer and about 80 other metal acts live. I have forgotten more metal lyrics than most people have ever heard. So when I say that I got more pleasure out of this five song set that Anvil played last night than I did out of some of the biggest-ticket tours I ever attended, that means something. But there was such a purity to it last night. Gervasi actually played with them for “School Love,” where he replaced Robb on the drums, and for their closing song “Metal On Metal,” they were joined onstage by Scotty Ian of Anthrax. Robb took the spotlight for “White Rhino,” which is basically a drum solo surrounded by a few riffs on either end. And it was all glorious. For that one night, for those five songs, for that crowd at the Egyptian, Anvil was the greatest band on Earth, and it’s that momentary high that all of us in the arts are always chasing, that moment when you connect to the audience and what you love becomes what you do. That’s what “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil” is ultimately about, and last night’s event was the pefect summation of why that message matters.
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