December 7, 2009

Compulsory Performance Review - Cinema Division - Anvil, The Story of Anvil

I never really got into metal. In the late seventies/early eighties, growing up, it was the music form with the most cachet in our small New England factory town. Iron Maiden, AC/DC, The Scorpions, Judas Priest, etc., were all very popular (although hip hop/rap moved in and took over by the mid-eighties). I understood and appreciated the anti-establishment, anti-religious, rebel without a cause mentality of metal, but got tripped up when it came to the trappings, be it black concert shirts, satanic poster imagery, and the sometimes almost cliquish knowledge and devotion of the local fan base. In addition, the screeching vocals, long thrashing guitar solos, and often silly faux-evil lyrics combined with the violent head bobbing just left me perplexed, if not apathetic most of the time. This Is Spinal Tap!, released in 1984, ushered in the mockumentary format with a fantastic parody of the heavy metal lifestyle, but the excesses and mythology of the genre were well-documented enough that the satire worked best by just playing it straight for the most part. David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls could have really existed (and probably did as pastiches of real-life metal artists), so the suspension of disbelief about the characters was minimized down to willful acceptance, which made the comedy that much more biting and connecting to the audience.

Anvil, The Story of Anvil, starts off as an almost scene-by-scene remake of Spinal Tap!. The Canadian band had a coming out of sorts in the mid-eighties, and were considered formulative influences for bands like Metallica, Motorhead, Anthrax, and Guns & Roses. But they never really made it big. Singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner started out as childhood friends outside of Toronto, and twenty years later, they still play off each other's strengths and weaknesses, particularly when times are tough for the band. And boy do they start off on a downswing. A haphazard European tour is almost painful to watch, with scenes of pathos that made me question whether the movie was in fact a mockumentary or the real thing, since it become comicly Tap-like in its arduous descent into the pitifully cringe-worthy.

Upon returning to North America, the movie slides into an introspective analysis that changes emotional gears for the viewer entirely. The director, Sacha Gervasi, a former Anvil roadie, really captures the sense of frustration, loss and perhaps blatant delusion, both in the musicians and their families. The family scenes and interviews form the foundation for the "will they succeed, or won't they" third act. They return to Japan, site of their initial brush with stardom, launching a large metal music festival at 11:30 in the morning. Will anyone even show up?

By the time the conclusion rolls around, you really feel for the band members and can share in their disappointment or joy. Anvil is a well-crafted and deeply satisfying documentary, providing emotional resonance, insights into the lure and fickle whims of fame, and touching personal interactions between bandmates and those close who haven't stopped believing in them.

8.0 out of 10.

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