In the early ‘80s, Toronto heavy metal band Anvil were on the verge of superstardom. They played harder and faster than almost anybody else at the time, earning them a legion of young fans, with members of Metalica, Slayer and Anthrax among their acolytes. Lars Ulrich (of Metallica), Tom Araya (of Slayer), Scott Ian (of Anthrax) and Slash (of Guns N’ Roses) all appear in the film, each speaking to the magnitude of Anvil’s influence on their own music.
Drummer Robb Reiner pioneered the use of the double bass-drum technique that has since become a drumming staple in metal. Meanwhile, singer and guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow pioneered the technique of performing in a leather bondage harness and playing his guitar with a dildo. This, however, has not become a staple in metal. (Yet.)
Their first three albums were popular enough to land them opening spots for the likes of Iron Maiden and Motörhead, and some major festival appearances, including the Super Rock Festival in Tokyo in 1984, where they played with the Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi. Clips from this performance open Anvil! The Story of Anvil, an engrossing look at the three decades of Anvil’s career and, perhaps more importantly, the friendship between founding members Reiner and Lips over those decades.
When we see Anvil on stage rocking a stadium full of Japanese rock fans, they look like bona-fide rock stars. They are living the dream. But as the film shifts from Tokyo to Scarborough, Ontario twenty years later, it’s clear that the dream has died. Or at least it should have died. Long ago. Many times over. But for Lips and Reiner, the dream is alive and so is Anvil, at least in between shifts delivering public school lunches and doing home renovations. It’s a long way from a Tokyo stadium to an Etobicoke sports bar, but these Reiner and Kudlow, nice Jewish boys from suburban Ontario, keep on rocking (along with later band additions, Ivan Hurd and Glen Five).
With Anvil!, director Sacha Gervasi has made the best rock documentary in recent memory. He clearly has a deep and abiding affection for Reiner and Lips and for Anvil, for whom he was a teenage roadie in the ‘80s. But he also has a very keen eye for the unintended humour that comes up in his subjects’ comments and actions, and the results are often hilarious, creating a “real life Spinal Tap” feel.
Indeed, the similarities to This is Spinal Tap are impossible to ignore, beginning with the fact that the director of the classic 1984 mockumentary is named almost identically to Anvil’s drummer, Robb Reiner. In the movie, we see them visit Stonehenge, their amp actually turns to 11, and Reiner’s name. Then there are the lyrics. Just about any of
Anvil’s lyrics would stand in for songs performed by the Tap, especially the sexual songs that have been a staple of Anvil’s repertoire for years. Songs like “Mattress Mambo” (opening line: “My favourite type of dancing is done upon a bed”), “Hair Pie” (opening line: “Dessert is my favourite meal, I eat it every day”), “Five Knuckle Shuffle” and “Tag Team” are clealy of the same ilk as Spinal Tap classics like “Lick My Love Pump” and “Big Bottom” (though possibly even more juvenile).
Audiences going into Anvil! expecting a real life Spinal Tap probably won’t be disappointed, but they will definitely be surprised at the emotional depth of this film. When Lips’ loving sister offers to help him out during a critical turning point for the band and he tearily chokes out, “Family is important shit, man,” it’s a touching, poignant (but still funny) moment.
Anvil! is an excellent film, regardless of whether or not you are a heavy metal fan or even a music fan. But if you are, all the better.