The standard for rock documentaries was set by This Is Spinal Tap, and it isn't even a real documentary. The 1984 spoof is uproariously funny but also uncomfortable, especially for musicians, because it captures many painful truths about the music business.
Which brings me to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the remarkably good documentary about a promising 1980s metal band that didn't find real success. Anvil! is strongly reminiscent of Spinal Tap, between the absurd stage theatrics, the heavy-metal hair, the bickering. Anvil! even has Stonehenge - the real Stonehenge, though, not Spinal Tap's scale model. Anvil! also is intermittently funny, though it's more mournful than comic. You've never seen so many tears in a metal documentary.
The Canadian band Anvil joined the pop-metal surge of a generation ago, when acts like Whitesnake, Metallica and Bon Jovi attained superstardom. Anvil was respected among metal musicians, a fact that's established right away. In interviews, notables like Motorhead's Lemmy and Metallica's Lars Ulrich talk admiringly about Anvil in its heyday, when the band joined the Scorpions and others on a 1984 tour of Japan. The famous musicians are at a loss to explain why Anvil never made it big.
All these years later, Anvil is still gigging, but rather than stadiums in Japan, they're playing small clubs in Canada. By day Steve "Lips" Kudlow, the singer and guitarist, drives a van for a catering company. He has just turned "fucking 50," as the inscription on his birthday cake reads. His siblings, educated professionals, worry about him. A dreamer given to outbursts of sadness and rage, Kudlow is still planning Anvil's success, but his longtime friend and bandmate, drummer Robb Reiner, is more practical and stoic. (Yes, Reiner's name differs by one letter from Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner's.)
Anvil's members struggle with money, to say nothing of their families' skepticism. A five-week European tour begins in triumph and ends in disaster, as the musicians huddle under sleeping bags on a road trip that would be grueling for musicians 30 years younger. The guys hook up with their old record producer Chris Tsangarides, who has produced many famous metal acts, in hopes that the 13th - 13th - Anvil record will be the breakthrough. Kudlow hints at suicide. Reiner quits the band.
Anvil! is skillfully crafted, especially in the way it conveys Kudlow and Reiner's delight at the fact that, all these years and difficulties later, they're still having fun playing music and traveling the world. Even so, Anvil faces an entertainment business that is, by its nature, brutal. It's hard to watch Kudlow pound the pavement in Hollywood with his newly recorded CD, and it's even harder to watch him meet with a record executive at EMI Canada. The executive listens to a few seconds of a track and says he'll be in touch, but he notes euphemistically that for old-time metal acts like Anvil, "the landscape has changed." (It's worth noting that the film has given Anvil's career a big boost.)
Of course, Anvil! was filmed four years ago, and those years have been tumultuous for big record companies thanks to the Internet. There is poignancy in Anvil's members still pinning their hopes on a major-label contract, because for major labels even more than heavy metal bands, the landscape truly has changed.