'Anvil!' wisely reveals rock life reality

When "This Is Spinal Tap" came out 25 years ago, the now-classic "mockumentary" fooled more than one viewer into thinking it was a real documentary of a real band. "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" has the opposite problem, sort of. Anvil is the story of a real band, in all its humor and heartbreak. But the film is so slick and hangs together so seamlessly, it's hard to believe it wasn't staged.

Nevertheless, "Anvil!" is a true story, and it's pretty wonderful even for those who are not of the metal persuasion. Despite the heavy-metal backdrop, it's a wise and nuanced film that will tell you a thing or two about the crazy-dream quadrant of the human condition.

Anvil came along in the big-hair days of the 1980s, contemporaries of the Scorpions, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other bands that went on to sell millions of albums and play arenas. That never happened for Anvil, for reasons that are not clear. "Anvil!" trots out Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash and other metal luminaries to sing the band's praises as a band that deserved the big time. But the fact remains that Anvil only made the U.S. charts once, peaking at a lowly No. 191 on the Billboard 200 in 1987.

After opening with scenes from a long-ago stadium concert in Japan, the film flashes forward two decades. Anvil frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who have known each other since childhood in Toronto, work soul-destroying day jobs and tend to their families. "It could never be worse than it already is," Kudlow sighs as he hauls another load of children's meals through the snow to another school.

By night, however, they're still rocking out as Anvil. And even though they're in their 50s, Kudlow and Reiner are still hoping against hope for that long-elusive big break that's going to provide belated redemption.

As chronicled by director Sacha Gervasi, "Anvil!" perfectly captures the pipe dreams and petty humiliations of the music business -- an enterprise in which success is always just one more leap of faith away, even as the definition of success is being recalibrated downward. Starry-eyed dreamers that they are, Kudlow and Reiner keep getting lured into situations they should be wary of. It seldom goes well.

A well-intentioned but incompetent fan books a European tour, which begins well before decaying into a death march of missed travel connections and empty rooms. Things hit rock bottom with a show for 174 people in a hall that holds 10,000, and the band limps home with no money to show for all the work.

Undaunted, they undertake a recording project that costs a ton of money they don't have. Kudlow declares that the album absolutely must come out on a major label; and after every label passes, Anvil puts it out themselves, schlepping copies around in a van.

The aforementioned "Spinal Tap" casts a long shadow, with numerous sly references and even a few direct quotes. There's a knob that goes to 11, a visit to Stonehenge and a temporary breakup. The declaration "Hello, Cleveland" is invoked as the band walks down a backstage hall. And just like "Spinal Tap," it ends with the band in full cry onstage in Japan.

What makes "Anvil!" notable for non-genre fans is the wide-eyed enthusiasm Reiner, and especially Kudlow, still show for their art. Whether anyone else thinks Anvil is a great band, these two are absolutely convinced of it -- and their enthusiasm is hard to resist. Moments of genuine warmth surface, but also rage. By now, Kudlow and Reiner are married to each other as much as to their long-suffering spouses, and it's a relationship that has weathered plenty of frustration.

It's a tie that binds, because success in music is less a goal than a drug. Those moments of triumph are wonderful when they happen, sure. But ultimately, they only stoke a desire for more. So they keep on keepin' on, and the struggle continues.

Long live rock, be it dead or alive.

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