Michael Moore has called Anvil! The Story Of Anvil "the best documentary I've seen in years" and UK daily The Times lauded it with "possibly the greatest film yet made about rock and roll". Critics loved the movie, with MetaCritic.com showing an average critical rating of 8.2/10. MetaCritic users assigned it the same rating, while RottenTomatoes.com users gave it an average score of 98%. You get the idea. Mysteriously, despite the almost universal acclaim, it failed to be recognized recently for Oscar consideration.
If you've never heard of Anvil, you're certainly in the majority. I've been a devoted metalhead my whole life and despite the fact they're also from Toronto (I live in the city's suburbs) I could only name one of their songs - "Metal On Metal" from 1982. The band's failure to attain widescale fame is effectively established during the opening scene with shots taken from 1984's Japanese Super Rock Festival, where we're also informed that Anvil's partners on the bill (including Bon Jovi, The Scorpions, and Whitesnake) achieved huge success, while Anvil was relegated to obscurity. Testimonials from the likes of Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Anthrax's Scott Ian, former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, and Motörhead's Lemmy all confirm Anvil's influence and impact on the speed metal movement, and all ask the same question: why didn't the group make it big?
Bad management, bad record deals, and plain old bad luck turn out to be the culprits, which is why we see Anvil founders Steve "Lips" Kudlow (lead vocals and guitar) and drummer Robb Reiner supplementing their rock careers by working day jobs they hate in the Toronto area - Kudlow delivers school meals and Reiner works construction. A tour of Eastern Europe is proposed to them by a fan who fancies herself a concert promoter and all manner of disasters ensue when the band accepts, such as missed train connections, getting lost on the way to a venue and then having to physically threaten the club owner to get paid, and underpromoted gigs that are sparsely attended (Anvil headlines the, ahem, prestigious Monsters Of Transylvania Rockfest and only 174 fans turn up in a venue that holds 10,000). Matters are complicated for the band when second guitarist Ivan Hurd becomes romantically involved with the aforementioned fan/promoter.
If any of this brings to mind a certain iconic 1984 mockumentary then you're on the right track - elements of Spinal Tap abound in this movie. There's also the band's cheesy album covers (most of which have an actual anvil prominently featured) and even a visit to Stonehenge. One of the principals even has the same bloody name as This Is Spinal Tap's director.
Redemption for the band is presented via a reconnection with a former producer, veteran Chris Tsangarides, who wants to produce their thirteenth album. Although the recording process is fraught with tension and arguments between Ludlow and Reiner, the finished product makes the band ecstatic. Not signed with a music label, we see the pair shopping This Is Thirteen to various companies, with one cringeworthy scene showing them meeting with an exec at EMI Canada, who gives the album about 20 seconds of ear time before turning it off and greasing their exit out of his office by telling them their longevity in the business "has currency" (does it get more record company weasel-sounding than that?). Another scene shows Ludlow in L.A. dropping off the CD in person to one label's security guard desk, another to the receptionist at the famed Capitol Records building. The fact that he's dressed like a teenager, wearing a hoody and baggy shorts, only strengthens the question anyone watching this film will ask themselves at one point: is this what a 50 year old man should be doing with his life?
And therein lies the heart of the movie - the passion Reiner and Ludlow have for their band and the reluctance to throw in the towel, well after most others would have. This resilience has taken its toll, both on themselves and their families. Interviews with the pair's wives show loyal partners whose love for their husband's dreams outweighs their own cynicism and impatience, but perhaps only marginally. Ludlow's enthusiasm for Anvil is endearing and infectious, and further complicated by the fact it's offset with a sobering wariness that only a 50 year old metal grunt whose band has endured it's fair share of bad fortune and misguided career decisions can possess.
The relationship between Reiner and Ludlow is fascinating to observe, with a love-hate dynamic that occasionally descends to a Davies/Robinson/Gallagher brothers level of fisticuffs. It may sound like a Bon Jovi lyric, but the pair met as 14 year olds and made a pact to conquer the music world together. They may not quite have seen a million faces and rocked 'em all, though...maybe more like a few hundred thousand? Reiner's fashion sense alone is pretty entertaining. He's always got something on his head (no doubt to cover up a bald spot atop his dome) and favours the wearing of some variation of cowboy boots, shirts unbuttoned down to his waist, an 80's style bullet belt, and a fanny pack. Nothing says metal more than a fanny pack, right?
The documentary was directed by first-timer Sacha Gervasi, who co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal. Gervasi was actually a roadie for Anvil back in the 80's, so there's obviously a relationship there, but huge credit to him and the band for putting their friendship aside and bravely showing us all the ugly details of the ongoing struggles of a metal band still attempting to break big after 30+ years of missteps and rejection.