Judge Victor Valdivia is bitter that his metal band, Tire Iron, never succeeded. The fact that he's untalented shouldn't matter.
At fourteen, they made a pact to rock together forever. They meant it.
Anvil! is a documentary about a long-running heavy metal band struggling to earn recognition and respect while still slaving away at grueling day jobs and dud concerts. That description explains the film's narrative, but the film is so much more than that. Anyone expecting merely an extended episode of Behind the Music or a real-life This Is Spinal Tap will be surprised to discover one of the most powerful and enthralling documentaries ever made.
Facts of the Case
In Anvil!, director and former screenwriter Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal), who was a roadie for Anvil in the 1980s, follows guitarist/singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Rob Reiner, the founding members of Anvil, as they attempt to keep the band going in the face of poorly attended, sloppily organized concerts, financial difficulties, and emotional upheavals. Gervasi examines the story of how a once-promising band has ended up all but forgotten and the effect that their struggles have on their friendship and their families.
Here's the trick to understanding Anvil!: it's only superficially a film about heavy metal. You don't have to care about metal, music, or even show business in general to find yourself affected by it. It's really a film about the importance of friends and family and how those bonds are tested by hardship and struggle. It's about having the determination to chase a dream even when others say that that dream may have already passed you by. It's about living as a decent, goodhearted human being no matter how many resentments and grudges you may rightfully hold. More than anything, it's maybe the most moving, hilarious, and exhilarating film of the year, all the more so because every last frame of it is real.
By now, the particulars of Anvil's story have become almost legendary. How Kudlow and Reiner formed Anvil in Toronto in the late '70s and created an unusual new metal sound that redefined the '70s hard rock sound of Grand Funk Railroad and Cactus into a sleeker and more intricate style. How their first three albums—Hard n' Heavy (1981), Metal On Metal (1982), and Forged In Fire (1983)—were released by a tiny independent Canadian label, selling modestly but attracting a rabidly devoted audience of metal fans. How some of those fans included Slash, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Anthrax's Scott Ian, and Slayer's Tom Araya, musicians who would form hugely significant bands in their own right and who appear in this film to cite Anvil's influence. How in 1983, having performed concerts with hot metal acts like Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, and Whitesnake, Anvil was poised to crack the mainstream. How almost immediately afterwards, a series of misguided business and artistic decisions resulted in a string of poorly received albums that alienated Anvil's fanbase and ended their ascent just as it began.
Anvil! does explain some of this, although the film doesn't quite delve into much detail on Anvil's decline. It does open with some priceless footage of Anvil in their early-'80s prime, playing a metal festival in Japan and delivering their infamously lewd and scabrous stage act. Nonetheless, the film is really more concerned with showing where the members of Anvil are now. Having missed the brass ring of metal superstardom, Kudlow and Reiner are shown working mind-numbing day jobs while still struggling to keep Anvil going. They book a European tour, which goes disastrously; they attempt to record a new album, which results in fights and financial problems; and they do their best to support their families while still clinging to their dreams.
If that was all Anvil! showed, then so what? Rock, like every other performing art, is full of millions of artists who never built on their early promise, so why should Anvil! matter? The answer is that these scenes do not make up the bulk of the film. At the real heart of Anvil! is the relationship between Kudlow and Reiner, who clearly complement each other perfectly. Kudlow is the impetuous visionary, and Reiner is the laidback foundation. Between them is a bond that's simply unbreakable, no matter the circumstances. When they butt heads during the recording sessions for their new album, the fight is brutal and intense, but ends within hours. When they face adversity on their ill-fated tour, facing off against shady promoters and greedy club owners, they stand up for each other. When the two are interviewed together, they essentially complete each other's sentences like an old married couple. More than anything, what emerges is how the bond between the two men (one relative describes them as closer than brothers) is really what keeps Anvil going despite the meager rewards. Pulling the plug on the band wouldn't just be ending their dream—it would mark the end of their friendship, and it's that friendship, not the prize of rock stardom, that's worth all the hardship and sacrifice that Kudlow and Reiner endure throughout the film.
It's revelations like these that highlight what an impressive job Gervasi has done in directing this film. Rather than falling for cheap stories about rock-and-roll debauchery or attempting to humiliate the band members by laughing at their adversity, Gervasi humanizes Kudlow and Reiner. They both treat their families with immense love and respect, they work their day jobs cheerfully and diligently, and they never come off as bitter or arrogant. When Reiner shows off the miniature drumsticks that his father, a jeweler and Holocaust survivor, made for him to remember to always follow his dreams, or when Kudlow's sister agrees to lend him the money to pay for studio time, you can't help being moved. A lesser director would have sneeringly painted Anvil as a washed-up joke, but for Gervasi, Anvil! is clearly a labor of love, a way to salute two men who, for all their occasional foibles and mistakes, deserve better than their lot in life. Gervasi's ability to make you care about these men is so skilled that by Anvil!'s climax, involving a concert that could potentially be either Anvil's last grasp at glory or a devastating disaster, you'll be on the edge of your seat, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. That's more than most scripted films can ask for.
VH1 films has done a nice job in presenting Anvil! on DVD. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is solid, with no major flaws. Since the film was shot mostly on video, there's not much room for sparkling visuals, especially on the archival footage, but what's here looks good enough. It's the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that excels, providing superb surround effects in various places while also beefing up the music.
As for extras, there's a healthy smattering, although they're not as thorough as one would have liked. The best is a commentary with Gervasi, Kudlow, and Reiner. The three men have plenty to share about the film and the events it depicts, and there is also plenty of great additional information that fills in the questions you may have after watching the film. If you liked the film, you'll love the commentary. Also included are some deleted scenes (12:03), most of which fill in some stories that were left out of the finished film. Some of these are particularly poignant, so be prepared; you'll have even more respect for Kudlow's optimism when you realize what he was really facing during the time the film was being shot. There's a full performance of "School Love" (4:17), one of Anvil's best songs, but this one has an added bonus: Gervasi filled in for Reiner on drums. It's a fun watch. Finally, there's the full interview with Lars Ulrich (30:06), who discusses Anvil's place in metal history and how he discovered their music. Fans of both Anvil and Metallica will definitely want to watch it. These are all good, but why not more? Why not include more performance footage, or perhaps a brief update on all that has happened since the film's release? After whetting one's appetite for more Anvil, the DVD's extras are just not enough to satisfy it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Anvil! can be said to falter in any way, it's that some viewers might want a little more background into Anvil's music than the film provides. Maybe a brief segment discussing why Anvil was so important and how they hit upon their sound would have been useful. Also, it might have been informative to explain a bit about why exactly Anvil's career went sour. That's not to shortchange anything that's actually in the film, all of which is essential, but perhaps a few extra minutes to address these issues would have made Anvil! even more comprehensive than it already is.
It doesn't matter how much, if anything, you know about Anvil going into Anvil!. In fact, viewers who have never heard of the band (and that's presumably a large portion) will be even more impressed with how the film effortlessly makes you care about people you didn't even know existed. That's the power of this film, and why anyone who has ever nursed an unfulfilled dream or needed the support of a loving family and friend will find Anvil! so touching. Anvil! is a documentary that anyone, fan or non-fan alike, needs to see.
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