Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"

The act of watching "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" lies somewhere between schadenfraude and sob story. At times you feel guilty pleasure at watching the pathetic story of a pair of heavy metal rockers who are somehow both has-beens and wannabes. The next moment, you feel sympathy as their hopes of fame and fortune keep getting raised and then dashed.

Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner had a dream when they were teenagers, one millions of teens have had: To become rock 'n' roll stars. Now it's more than 30 years later, they never made it, and brutal truth be told, this real-life "Spinal Tap" is not good enough to make it. Except they're still pursuing the dream with all the vitality and self-delusion of a 15-year-old shredding chords in a garage somewhere.

The doc is directed by Sacha Gervasi ("The Terminal"), who used to be a roadie for Anvil back when they were on the cusp of fame.

He opens in 1984 at a huge metal concert in Japan featuring bands that would all (except one) go on to sell millions of records. Figures like Lars Ulrich from Metallica and Slash from Guns N' Roses talk about how Anvil influenced them, and put on live shows that made them envious.

Cut to today: Kudlow, known to everyone as Lips, is trudging through the Canadian snow delivering meals to schools. Working for a catering service doesn't pay much, but it's a steadier gig than playing music in tiny bars in front of a couple dozen fans.

The film really belongs to Lips, even though Robb is supposed to be an equal partner in their boyhood fantasy. But Lips is such a compelling figure, so utterly guileless and naked in his desire to make it big, that at first one thinks the whole movie is a put-on.

Soon it becomes clear, though, that he really has sacrificed everything for the gods of rock, and truly believes that someday they'll smile on him.

Others, including Robb, are not convinced. Robb's sister puts it flatly: "It's over. It's been over for a long time." Even Lips' wife, while completely supportive of his dreams, seems to recognize his chance was blown.

The film follows the band through one disappointment after another. Their manager, the girlfriend of one of the temporary band members, books them on a disastrous European tour. She barely speaks English and can't even arrange adequate transportation. When Lips stands on a metro station, staring forlornly at the empty tracks and says, "We missed our train," his yearning hits the audience like a power chord.

The absolute low point comes when they arrive two hours late for a gig, put on a show for the handful of people who remain, and Lips nearly gets into a fight with the club owner who refuses to pay them.

They start work on a new album -- their 13th -- by borrowing money from a relative. The pressure drives a wedge between Robb and Lips; but we sense it is fleeting, because there have been a hundred such quarrels like this before.

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" is sad, funny, touching, and loud.

3 stars

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