The irresistibly titled Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (Abramorama) is living proof that This Is Spinal Tap is the Andy Warhol of rock documentaries, a movie so hugely influential that no subsequent nonfiction film about rock ’n’ roll can avoid quoting it and even reality itself sometimes seems to be in its debt. Anvil!, the story of a Canadian heavy-metal band that had a brief flash of fame in the early ‘80s, touring with Whitesnake and Bon Jovi before disappearing into obscurity, is full of nods to Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary, from a comeback tour of Japan to a visit to Stonehenge to a shot of an audio engineer’s volume dial that goes to 11. And, in a bit of Spinal Tap synchronicity that couldn’t have been planned by anyone but God, the given name of Anvil’s drummer is Robb (two b’s) Reiner.
But Anvil!’s deep kinship with Spinal Tap is more than circumstantial. Both films are, at heart, portraits of a lifelong collaboration between two musicians as dedicated as they are delusional. When Anvil’s guitarist and lead singer, Steven “Lips” Kudlow, and Reiner, his drummer and best friend since age 14, remember the first song they wrote together—inspired by a high-school history class on the Spanish Inquisition, it was titled “Thumb Hang”—Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins themselves couldn’t be more absurdly pompous or more adorable.
The director, Sacha Gervasi, is a fan first and a documentarian second. If Anvil! has a flaw, it’s that it’s too enthusiastic, a reverently uncritical valentine to the director’s adolescent heroes. Gervasi first discovered the band as a teenager in Britain in the ‘80s, followed them on tour a year later (where, as Kudlow explained, “we taught him what to do with groupies”), and went back to Britain to become a screenwriter. Twenty years later, Gervasi returned to Toronto to see what had become of Anvil and found Reiner and Kudlow, now in their early 50s, working menial day jobs while still churning out albums (the upcoming one will be called Juggernaut of Justice) and playing shows for tiny cult audiences in venues like Etobicoke, Ontario.
In the year or so that Gervasi follows Anvil around, the band is invited on a disastrous European tour by Tiziana Arrigoni, an Italian fan-turned-inept-manager who leads them on an ill-planned and worse-paid trek through the empty nightclubs of Eastern Europe. In Prague, the band’s van gets lost in winding streets, and they arrive so late at the gig that the club owner pays them in bowls of goulash. The low point comes in Romania, where the boys are booked in a 20,000-seat arena—for an audience of 174. “I try,” weeps the hapless Tiziana as the band members miss yet another train out of town. But her story won’t end badly; she marries and settles in Canada with one of the band’s younger members, and Anvil rocks the reception. (There’s a priceless slow pan of the wedding guests’ suffering faces.) Later, Anvil gets the chance to record their 13th album with legendary British metal producer Chris Tsangarides. But will anyone want to release an album from a 30-year-old band whose only currency is their sheer willingness to survive?
I’ll never be able to dissociate my fondness for Anvil! from the circumstances in which I saw it: not at a critics’ screening in a corporate high-rise but a raucous premiere at a rock club, where the film was projected on a tiny screen suspended above a stage already outfitted with a monster drum kit. As the final credits rolled, the screen rose to reveal Kudlow, Reiner, and their bassist Glenn Five. (Like the drummers in Spinal Tap, Anvil’s bassists are periodically and nonchalantly replaced.) Amid the frenzy of a packed crowd that must have included every hard-core Anvil-head in New York, they proceeded to play a short but shredding set. Kudlow, a sweet-faced, foulmouthed charmer whose pride at being rediscovered was palpably clear to the back row, encouraged the audience to sing along on such easily-learned anthems as “Metal on Metal” and “This Is Thirteen,” a catalog of the vaguely spooky items you might find at a Hot Topic store: “Tarot card and tea leaves/ A crystal ball/ The gypsy’s kiss/ The death cards call.” The fight that broke out in front of the stage between club security and a burly, overly passionate Anvil fan seemed like the perfect ending to a headbanging, devil-horn-brandishing, unexpectedly moving night.