The poignant 2008 rock doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” — which dramatically altered the fates of the band and may have changed the game for music docs at the Oscars — returns to theaters 13 years after its initial release.
Director and one-time teenage Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi, who provided an intimate look at the tribulations of the never-say-die Canadian metal band, ultimately saw the pic win a 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming. Other prizes include a 2010 Independent Spirit Award for best documentary, and the audience award for best film at Dublin International Film Festival (2009). It’s tied for sixth place as one of the highest-rated documentaries of all time on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% fresh critical rating, and a 90% audience score with over votes.
Despite the universal acclaim, “it wasn’t even long-listed for the Academy Award,” says Gervais. “There was a lot of ‘hold on, what the fuck happened?’ The selection procedure at that time in the documentary branch was very specific. Basically, one 78-year-old guy [Academy voter] saw [singer/guitarist Steve Kudlow] Lips playing his Flying V guitar with a dildo in the beginning of the movie, stopped watching, took the film off the list and it never proceeded to any more rounds,” he alleges.
In 2009, Indie Wire reported that 89 documentaries qualified for the documentary feature category for the 82nd Academy Awards, and “notable omissions included ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil,’ along with ‘The September Issue,’ ‘It Might Get Loud’ and Michael Moore’s ‘Capitalism: A Love Story.’”
Gervasi, who has since directed 2012’s “Hitchcock” and 2018’s “My Dinner with Hervé,” says it was a groundswell of grass-roots support for the film that opened doors for music docs about inspirational lesser-knowns. “Ultimately, there was so many fans of ‘Anvil!’ who felt it was unfair that the film had not been long-listed, let alone short-listed, that the outcry, at least what I heard, caused them to change the rules.
“We had tons of love,” the filmmaker recalls. “I remember one distributor came out in tears saying, ‘I love your movie, but I have no idea how to sell it.’ It’s commercially not viable.”
In 2013, “when ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ won the Academy Award [for best documentary feature], the producer called me the day after to thank me. He said because ‘Anvil!’ had fallen on its sword essentially, within five or so years this rule change happened.”
In 2014, “20 Feet From Stardom,” about the lives of background singers, won best doc. In 2015 “Amy” got the same laurel, and in the ensuing years, streaming services saw “Laurel Canyon,” “The Velvet Underground,” “Fanny,” “Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall” and scores of other non-mainstream music docs swamp screens and earn kudos.
In an interview prior to “Anvil!’s” Sept. 13 NYC screening event, hosted by actor Peter Dinklage and featuring Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, Gervasi related the fortuitous trajectory of the film’s initial spark and subsequent re-release.
After losing track of his 1980s Anvil pals, he reconnected in 2005. “I discovered that Anvil had made nine or 10 albums I never heard of. And they had just played a pub in Quebec to, like, 100 people.” He flew Kudlow out to visit him Malibu. “I picked him up at the airport, and he was wearing the same Scorpions T-shirt as when I’d last seen him, literally. Nothing had changed.”
The singer regaled Gervasi with plans for the next Anvil album. “He’s so excited. He still believes,” recalls the director. “At first I was like, ‘God, this is really sad.’ But by the end of the weekend, I was just, ‘I love the spirit of — even if it’s gone to shit — not giving up.’”
A subsequent pitch and band lunch at the Toronto film festival with producer and friend Rebecca Yeldham led to her saying, “I hate heavy metal. But I love this story.” More than a decade after producing “Anvil!” it was her son (and Gervasi’s godson) Rio Hanson who started watching the film with his teenage friends. They became obsessed, which led to the idea of putting out the film in theaters for a new generation.
Other fans include Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney and Keanu Reeves, who presented the film at a London screening. Cameron Crowe, Ryan Gosling and John Mayer also are fans. Dustin Hoffman saw “Anvil!” numerous times at the Nuart in Los Angeles. (When Kudlow and Reiner met Hoffman, after speaking with the actor for a while, they asked Gervasi, “Hhe’s the ‘Papillion guy, right?”) NYC Q&A moderator Dinklage noted that Gervasi and the band shared the qualities of “loyalty and perseverance.”
Unfettered access to a subject is what any doc maker wants but rarely gets. But Anvil trusted Gervasi, who told them that the movie had to be funny — “because by the way, they’re fucking funny,” he says. He explained that if the movie worked, “the audience is going to be laughing at you guys in the first 15 minutes. But by the end, there’s a big spin.” “The Story of Anvil” “shows the reality of life for most musicians,” Gervasi says, “because .1% make it, the rest don’t, and either they give up or they become quote-unquote sensible.”
Neither sensible nor quitters, Anvil and the “hope springs eternal” message of the film earned a standing ovation at the New York screening. Afterward, Kudlow reflected on the hard-earned luxury of quitting his day job in school catering — after the age of 50 — to live his musical passion.
Since “Anvil!,” the band has opened for AC/DC, earned the love of superstars from Metallica to Slash of Guns N’ Roses and are living the life they dreamed of since the late ‘70s. Kudlow, 66 and endlessly ebullient and emotional, says he found it difficult to re-watch Anvil’s hardscrabble life on the big screen. But now, the frontman concludes, “No more shitty day jobs. I have endless employment, until I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Utopia is releasing the remastered “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” alongside Portobello Electric in theaters on Sept. 27. The Los Angeles premiere is Sept. 22 at the Saban Theatre, with a live concert by Anvil and a Q&A with Kudlow, Robb, Yeldham and Gervasi, moderated by Steve-O of “Jackass.”