Drugs, Cessnas, belts tied to door-knobs — it’s a gamble becoming a rock star, and yet even their most gruesome demises have a strange sex appeal. Delivering fish, working in a cafeteria, and installing toilets, on the other hand, do not. But that’s what happened to Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the founding members of one of the most influential heavy metal bands you’ve never heard of.
Anvil, a Toronto band that formed in the ’70s, avoided addiction, jail, and tour bus fires, but after a world tour in 1984 with the Scorpions, Bon Jovi, and Whitesnake they descended into obscurity. We think their fortune, or lack of, is about to change however, thanks to a new film. Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which hits New York and LA theaters this week, is full of the kind of inspiration that only a story this strange can offer.
Not long ago, we had the chance to sit down with Lips, Robb, and director Sacha Gervasi, who before coming to Hollywood via England, was the band’s roadie back in the mid ’80s. (That he knew the band as a teenager, before penning big-budget scripts such as Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, adds another layer to Anvil’s odd “tale”.) Twenty some years after parting ways, Gervasi wondered what happened to Lips and Robb; what he found out shocked and inspired him. Not only was the band still together; they still dreamed of becoming rock stars. Sacha flew them out to LA and tells us that, “the moment I met them again it was like a walking film…everything that happens when you hang out with these guys is quite mental, I mean just crazy shit happens all the time, so I thought, I’ll just film that.”
The “crazy shit” Gervasi is talking about will have audiences asking themselves if the whole thing is some sort of Joaquin Phoenix put-on, as the first 20 minutes alone — complete with celebrity interviews — places the film firmly in Spinal Tap land. Or not: “I knew that people would not believe it, and when my crew thought it wasn’t real I knew we had something.” When asked about the film that goes to eleven, he proudly admits that he “structured it in such a way as to encourage the parallel with Spinal Tap, because, look, Robb’s called Robb Reiner. It was going to be inescapable.”
Structures be damned, what happens after we first meet Robb and Lips, should be the stopper on the mockumentary bottle: The band travels to Transylvania for The Monsters of Rock show, followed by a disastrous tour of Eastern Europe organized by the manager from hell, who makes Simka Gravas sound coherent. “English was like her seventh language,” Gervasi explains.
The disasters on the tour are emblematic of the fine line between comedy and tragedy that coexist in almost every frame of Anvil. Many of the film’s most poignant moments are also its most hilarious, and usually involve the interaction between Robb and Lips, which oscillates between brotherhood and a marriage on the rocks. “What could be a better way to exemplify a relationship than showing a breakdown and getting over it?” asks Lips, whose sincere comments echo louder than his D&D-inspired lyrics.
He’s barely able to contain his natural enthusiasm in person, which drives the film and prevents its message from inducing diabetes. Instead Anvil offers the type of inspiration that will serve poets and ballerinas just as much as it will aspiring headbangers. “You’ve only got one chance man,” he tells us, “you’ve only got one life.”
And in an atmosphere as dour as ours, Anvil is the perfect film to cushion our fears of future. “The universe conspired for the movie to come out at this time,” Gervasi says. “The movie is about going through hell and surviving, and the message is that miracles do happen. Not that they will happen, but that it’s at least possible.” Who knew that ’80s Canadian thrash metal was going to save us all?