The new documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens with archival footage of Steve “Lips” Kudlow playing his Flying V guitar with a dildo. The image immediately evokes the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. It’s not much of a leap, or even a power slide, to connect the fictional rock stylings of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel to the authentic attempts at the big time of aging heavy metal act Anvil. Directed by longtime fan Sacha Gervasi, Anvil! even features an amp turned up to 11, a pilgrimage to Stonehenge, and a longtime drummer named Robb Reiner.
Anvil! also reveals surprising similarities to The Wrestler, another portrait of a long-haired 1980s pop relic. When the film shows Kudlow at his day job, delivering meals for a children’s catering company in snowy Toronto, it’s as poignant as seeing Randy “The Ram” Robinson working behind the deli counter. Kudlow makes nearly as compelling a central figure as Rourke’s role. Despite his macho posturing and faux Satanism on stage, Kudlow is a big, boyish softy. Gregarious and emotionally transparent, Kudlow goes through heartbreaking disappointment when things go wrong for the band — and do they ever.
Kudlow and Reiner (in their early 50s during the doc) began banging their heads as teenagers. Their first collaboration was a tune called “Thumb Hang,” about the Spanish Inquisition. In the 1980s, they earned just enough attention to inspire a cult following and influence more successful metal acts — Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, among others, sings their praises. Anvil! shows Kudlow, Reiner and their younger bandmates doggedly pursuing rock stardom. Inevitably, though, they end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
A European tour, for instance, turns out to be one missed train and half-deserted beer hall after another. Kudlow puts a brave face on Anvil’s misfortunes and comments of the tour, “Things went wrong, but at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on.” At times, however, his optimistic front slips, releasing his anger and desperation. When a Czech club owner refuses to pay the band for being late, violence nearly breaks out. Later, in an attempt to raise money for one last album, Kudlow takes a job at a telemarketing firm owned by a fan named Cut Loose. Kudlow admits his Lips persona is too honest to be a natural salesman.
The audience initially laughs at Anvil’s hard luck and heavy metal hyperbole, but invests enormous emotional concern in the band almost without realizing it. Anvil’s quixotic, last-ditch bids at success leave the viewer sympathetic but with split feelings. Would Kudlow, Reiner and company be better off hanging up their guitars and drumsticks and putting their dream aside? The film offers an enormously affecting account of friendship, fandom and the heartlessness of showbiz. Anvil! completely wins over the audience, even without exploding drummers.