‘Is this another Spinal Tap?’ I scribbled in my notebook when this documentary about the middle-aged members of a failed Canadian heavy metal band got underway. Before seeing this movie last year, I’d never heard of Anvil, so-called ‘demigods of Canadian metal’, and it took me more than a moment to reassure myself that this film from Sacha Gervasi (writer of Spielberg’s The Terminal) wasn’t a spoof.
It turns out, though, that the story of Anvil band mates Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, he does confusingly share his name with Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner), and their still ardent quest for rock stardom in their 50s, isn’t a mockumentary – though you will spot a dial that goes up to 11. It’s all heartbreakingly, comically, touchingly true.
Gervasi’s movie opens with footage showing the band in their head-banging, big-haired 1980s pomp at a humungous stadium concert in Japan where they shared the bill with metal heavyweights Scorpions, Bon Jovi and Whitesnake. Back then, they appeared to be on the brink of superstardom – as talking-head testimonials from the likes of Slash and Lemmy attest – but thanks in part to “crappy management” and “crappy [record] productions” it all went pear-shaped.
Cruelly, poignantly, the doc shows just how pear-shaped it all went for Anvil by cutting from 80s Japan to present-day Toronto where singer and guitarist Lips and drummer Robb hold down humdrum jobs while they struggle to keep their dreams of heavy metal glory alive (we see Lips trudging through a snowy suburb as he schleps containers for a school food delivery service). Yet despite their thinning hair, and despite the families they now need to support, the duo won’t give up on the vow they made as teenage best friends to rock on forever.
Gervasi befriended the band as a 15-year-old heavy metal fan after seeing them play in London in 1982 and even went on tour with them as their roadie. Thirty-plus years later, by now a successful filmmaker, he learnt that the band was still going and decided to follow them at home and on the road as they attempted to resurrect their musical career.
His camera tracks Lips and Robb, plus their shorter-term band mates, as they go on a blundering tour of Europe with an amateur manager who’s clearly out of her depth. And, yes, there is something Spinal Tap-like about the band’s misadventures as trains get missed, gigs turn out to be in tiny under-attended bars and promoters fail to pay. But notwithstanding the comedy inherent in the band’s situation, the movie doesn’t leave you laughing at Anvil. Instead, you’re more likely to be moved by the doggedness of Lips and Robb, and the resilience of their friendship, tested to the limits though it often is.
Indeed, the movie turns out to be as much about teenage dreams and middle-aged male friendship as it is about music, which means, fortunately, that you don’t have to be a metalhead to enjoy it. Even if you’re a confirmed heavy metal hater, I’m convinced that Anvil! The Story of Anvil will bring a smile to your lips and a tear to your eye. And you’ll probably be holding your breath, hoping for the best, when late in the day the band’s fortunes look as though they just might take a turn for the good. (Released 20th February)