By William J. Hammon, founder ActuallyPaid.com
The best music documentaries all have one basic thing in common: showing the audience something they haven’t seen before. Essentially, introduce the viewers to something new, or take a novel approach to the familiar. Recent high points in this regard are Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream, which offered a unique insight into David Bowie’s life through a stream of consciousness of his artistry; and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, a journey through the career of one of the most influential groups in pop and rock history, even though they rarely achieved mainstream success despite more than five decades of output.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, falls more into the latter category, highlighting what probably should have been a stratospheric rise for a supremely talented band that instead faded into obscurity. Originally released in 2009 (and winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary a year later), the film has gotten a nationwide re-release for its 13th anniversary. Why 13? One, it’s metal as hell, and two, a good chunk of the story revolves around the band recording their 13th album, “This is Thirteen,” so it only seems appropriate. If you’ve never seen the film before, this is an excellent opportunity to check it out, and if you have, it never hurts to have a nice reminder of how great this story is. Plus there’s a new epilogue interview with Gervasi (who was himself a former roadie for Anvil) and the two main members of the group moderated by Matt Pinfield, who’s about as close to a true heavy metal historian as anyone can get.
The film opens at the 1984 Super Rock Festival in Japan, where four bands are prominently featured: Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Anvil. Guess which one never made it to superstardom. Despite incredible musical skill and a commanding stage presence, the group never took off the way they perhaps should have. Flash forward to 2006, and the tank is practically empty.
Formed in Canada in the 1970s, Anvil’s core is frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (not to be confused with Rob Reiner the filmmaker). They met as teenagers, bonded over their love of hard rock, and have been as close as brothers ever since. Now, as they enter their 50s, they try to keep the dream of the band alive, while playing the hand that reality has dealt them, with Kudlow working for a school lunch caterer and Reiner in construction.
A glimmer of hope arrives for a shot at redemption in the form of an invitation from an eager talent manager who wishes to book them for a European tour. It starts out promisingly enough, but quickly becomes a disaster as the venues get smaller and smaller, with less and less turnout. Travel arrangements are slapdash at best. A club owner refuses to pay them because they got lost and showed up late, even though they still performed their entire set. By the time they fly back home, they’re even more broke than they were before.
As Kudlow notes multiple times, both to the camera, fans, and other aspiring musicians, about 99.9% of artists never make money. It’s a somber truth, and yet it never stops them. On the heels of the latest disappointment, another last ditch opportunity presents itself in the chance to record a new album with their old producer – the one who was at the helm for their best work in the 80s – if they can raise the money. The cycle of realizing the dream with a high chance of crushing defeat begins again.
It almost feels like the film is doomed to be a downer, a constant series of Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown’s kick. But the grace notes come in Kudlow and Reiner’s undying commitment to themselves, their art, and each other. For a story about two guys who constantly get the short end of things, the movie is amazingly positive and life-affirming. It acknowledges that oftentimes luck is the biggest factor in anyone’s success, much more so than tenacity and a strong work ething, although those are necessities as well. But at the same time, there’s a beautiful throughline where no matter how bad things get, no matter how many doors close on them, no matter how many times they rage and fight, Lips and Robb still have great lives, loving families, their music as an outlet, and most importantly, the knowledge that they’re not alone in this effort.
That’s more than plenty of people can say, and that deep understanding they have for themselves and their lots in life is what carries them to the next gig, the next pitch meeting, the next recording session. And even better, it’s what gets us in the audience to keep on rooting for them, in hopes that their ambitions aren’t as quixotic as circumstances might suggest. There’s a raw honesty that pervades the entire film, as well as a deep appreciation for artistry that transcends genre and musical tastes. The struggle is real, and Anvil’s story shows it in ways few others can. There are valuable and extremely unexpected lessons to be learned from all of this, which is why, 13 years later, this can still be held up among the greatest music documentaries.