Film Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

An engaging account of the life and times of an obscure Canadian heavy-metal band.

You'd be forgiven for spending the first ten minutes of the new documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil convinced that you were watching a modern-day This Is Spinal Tap and not just because Rob Reiner's 1984 comedy classic spoofed heavy-metal bands with such precision. The similarities between the "real" band Anvil and the fake one that Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer invented are impossible to ignore, from their rabid fan base in Japan, to their entendre-laden lyrics, to the fact that their drummer is named—I kid you not—Robb Reiner. But a quick Internet search reveals that Anvil is indeed the real deal. Hailing from the Great White North, the band's history stretches back to 1981 three years before This Is Spinal Tap's release, although the mock metal group had been sporadically performing since 1979.

Among the first wave of bands to popularize the look and sound of early ’80s hair metal, Anvil attracted a lot of attention for their pounding tunes and off-the-wall onstage stunts, which included lead guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow playing his Flying-V with a dildo. For a time, their star burned brightly; they played to sold-out crowds at home and abroad and had an obvious impact on such second-generation metal acts as Slayer and Metallica (whose drummer Lars Ulrich is briefly seen testifying to Anvil's influence in the film). But then, for reasons that director Sacha Gervasi—whose own history with the band dates back many years—never satisfactorily specifies, Anvil fell off the heavy-metal map. While they continued to tour and record new albums, sales steadily dropped and the musicians eventually had to take other jobs to support themselves and their families whenever gigs dried up. Nevertheless, the band's core members, Kudlow and Reiner, refused to give up on their youthful dreams of superstardom and kept the Anvil name alive even after the other founding players moved on.

Filmed over a period of two or three years beginning in 2005, Anvil! finds the now-fifty-something rockers still playing their hearts out in front of ever-dwindling audiences. Even when great opportunities do come their way—like a multi-date European tour or the chance to record a new album under the guidance of a respected British producer—something always seems to go wrong. The fact that they continue to soldier on either makes them courageous or foolhardy…or maybe a little bit of both.

Gervasi encourages the audience to root for these guys, even while acknowledging their faults and foibles. For example, Kudlow's passion for music is undeniable, but it's very clear that he's lacking any kind of business savvy. Similarly, Reiner is quick to criticize Kudlow's decisions, but doesn't seem to have many constructive suggestions of his own. The director stops just short of suggesting that Anvil's latest comeback is destined for failure, though, ending the film with footage of the band performing to a packed room of screaming fans at a Japanese heavy-metal festival. Although this finale casts the band's tenuous future in an overly upbeat light, it's hard not to raise a lighter and flash a set of devil's horns in a toast to Anvil, the metal band that wouldn't quit…even when they probably should.