A real-life Spinal Tap facing some harsh realities, Canadian metal band Anvil — whose principals have been playing together for more than 35 years — proves surprisingly inspirational and endearing in Sacha Gervasi’s docu as the members struggle to keep rockin’ into their 50s, with commercial success forever just out of reach. Very entertaining docu is amusing without being condescending, touching without straining for pathos. A la the Brian Jonestown Massacre in “Dig!” this warts ‘n’ all portrait will likely bring the act in question more attention than all their prior toiling. Prospects are good for a specialty distrib wherever hoisted devil-horn fingers spell R-A-W-K.
Original quartet is first seen in wrong-aspect-ratio’d footage from 1984, when they seemed on the brink of stardom. They shared a mighty metal stage then with the soon-to-be-huge likes of Bon Jovi and Whitesnake. But while those outfits rose to the pinnacle of ’80s “Headbanger’s Ball” success, Anvil — whose earliest LPs are considered a major formative influence by subsequent speed-metal units like Metallica and Slayer, as testified by some members here — failed to build further momentum on those moderate hits. Dropped from their major label, they soldiered on, recording subsequent discs on the cheap, playing for dwindling audiences at clubs, still hoping for an increasingly improbable big break.
Founders lead vocalist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner now have working-class Toronto day jobs, wives and kids to support. But they haven’t given up their teenage dreams yet, much as some loved ones wish they would. Their dogged optimism leads to a European tour (mismanaged), a 13th album reuniting them with stellar metal producer Chris Tsangarides, and finally a triumphant return to Japan after 20-plus years.
En route, various indignities are endured, and the high-strung Lips’ tendency to vent frustrations on long-suffering Robb nearly bust up the band for good. (The foursome’s other two current players G5 and Ivan Herd are the latest in a line of shorter-term members.)
Vintage clips from Anvil’s heyday are highlighted by their appearance on a chatshow, outraging housewives as the TV hostess quotes the hilariously crass lyrics to their song “Toe Jam.”
Lips and Robb don’t necessarily seem like the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they do write crisp, crunchy tunes, and from evidence here never fail to put on a full-out show whether playing for a stadium crowd or at a bar. They’ve even had fans dedicated enough to follow them from gig to gig, notably two guys named “Cut Loose” and “Mad Dog.”
Throughout, interviews with spouses, siblings and parents demonstrate the degree of tolerance required to stick with middle-aged men still pursuing a 16-year-old’s ultimate rock star fantasy at the cost of financial instability and frequent absences from home.
Well-shot and edited, “Anvil!” is an underdog saga even non-metalheads will root for. It tows that fine line between chuckling at its protags’ somewhat absurd situation and celebrating their sheer unwillingness to give up.