I grew up in the country; I find central London on a Saturday difficult. It was the day before St Patrick’s and an American tour group in their cult of identical baseball caps were taking photos of a prematurely slaughtered man in a comedy Guinness hat who they had spine-shiveringly proclaimed as an authentic leprechaun. Something had gone wrong in my body that morning and I was having to regularly revert back to the National Portrait Gallery to use their facilities, which meant I couldn’t venture very far from Leicester Square, home of cinema extortion.
The Prince Charles Cinema – self-proclaimed grindhouse favourite of Mr Tarantino, along with numerous others – was showing Anvil! The Story of Anvil at a slightly less extortionate rate than Odeon’s Gran Torino or the other Odeon’s Watchmen. So, I paid my £9.50 and cowered as quickly as I could in the darkness of the second row, empty as always of the British public and their inability to accept that entertainment really isn’t a sin and that, just maybe, they could sit close enough to the screen to justify an afternoon away from the television.
But by that familiar power of cinema, as the audacious Eighties title tattooed itself onto the screen, my petty woes were forgotten and I became at once enchanted by the story of Steve “Lips” Kudlow, Robb Reiner and their time traveling band…Anvil, obviously. A special type of time traveling, it has to be said, usually known as being insanely committed to the manifestation of one idea for so long that its very existence creates a window through which, in this case, the authentic hair, clothes and cock of Eighties rock can be witnessed in the present; or you could simply call it staying alive.
Let me also say that, despite perhaps ignorant rumours and comparisons, this is a documentary and not just a re-make of Spinal Tap. It is, of course, a strange example of rock doc inspired by rock moc, and it does benefit from the potentially identical market that the latter genre created, but the immediate tenderness and fragility of Anvil’s subjects quashes any doubts I had heard voiced. This is not to say that the film isn’t frequently funny and hilarious in places, but the absurdity of the humour’s origins is such that even the genius of Christopher Guest becomes trumped by reality.
I’d be surprised and saddened if there wasn’t at least a little hidden love for heavy metal music and the way of life that shadows it in all people under the age of fifty. Anvil actually play a gig for singer and leader guitarist Lips’ fiftieth birthday during the first act of the documentary – a passionate yet equally intimate affair that exemplifies the band’s career, thirty years on from the glorious sea of banging heads in the archive that opened the film – so I guess I shouldn’t discriminate. My point is that this humble film will continue to be a critical and popular success, not just because of its execution or its undeniably empathetic characters, but because of its backdrop, it being two things almost everybody can relate to – the escapism of heavy metal and the reality of day-to-day life.
The film’s director, Sacha Gervasi, juxtaposes these themes with subtly decreasing distinction, making what at first seems a darkly humorous contradiction into an increasingly desperate and poignant manifestation of the immovable object (being reality) and the unstoppable force (being Anvil).
Most of the humour derives from the desperation and denial of the continually worsening situation that the band finds themselves in: factory work, second mortgages, homelessness, missed tour transport, missed tour pay, missed audiences, fights with club owners, child support, baldness and paintings of shit (you’ll have to watch it to figure out that last one). But against all of this – denying all of this – is the band’s passion, one of the most blind, naïve and committed passions I’ve ever seen captured on film and, therefore, honestly inspiring and moving for all of its folly.
Which brings us back to heavy metal as a global force for good. Now, I can’t claim to be a ‘metaller’ these days, but surely all of us, and particularly those of us who grew up in the country – where a certain amount of escapism is essential – and had everything passed down to them from older brothers, dipped our toes into Metallica or Maiden or Guns’n’Roses at some point; if only for a month when we were twelve. But enough, at least, for the comforting recognition of that happy anger, that joyous aggression, that pretend rebellion to reside somewhere inside us for the rest of our lives to be unashamedly regurgitated as an embarrassing head-bang at a wedding in front of our kids when we’re 40 or as tear-jerking empathy in a trendy central London grindhouse when you’re 22 and apparently too cool to like anything but electro-indie-grime.
The key to the unlocking of this all-but-forgotten trait is in Gervasi’s depiction of Lips’ and drummer Robb’s relationship. Lips, as the name suggests, is a frantic voice-piece for the frustrated band and Robb a quiet but evidently weakening support. The background of their families and friendship are discussed during the film, but when faced with the undeniable emotion both men show for each other and their band in the relatively short space of time Gervasi gives us with them, it hardly seems necessary to explain such a bond.
And this is why Anvil! isn’t Spinal Tap, because Gervasi knows his subjects; he roadied for them when he was fifteen and they were about to not take over the world. This subjectivity shows, not in any over-sentimentality or glamourisation of the subjects, but in the capturing of raw emotion made available only by harnessing such a connection and in the empathy that this otherwise piss-take film could have resulted without in the hands of an overly objective film-maker.
So this is a film about Anvil, but Anvil is Lips and Robb. In their inability to grow up or apart, they became a middle-aged representation of my own childhood friendships, which were able to be unquestionably loyal in a world without responsibility, but fell apart over time and consequence. I have to admit, therefore, that when faced with this depiction of highly endangered friendship, and as the trials and tribulations of Anvil wore on, that the laughter was overwhelmed by an almost constant well of tears that burst its banks at the film’s perfectly and subtly manipulated climax.
I won’t tell you whether they ever ‘make it’, although a quick Google will reveal the uplifting little revival that this film has brought them, but I was glad to be sat alone in the second row when the lights came on at the end. As testimony to Anvil’s life story and director Sacha Gervasi’s personal yet practical depiction of it, I walked out into the world with a refreshed sense of optimism and a reduced sense of pretension. I had unashamedly cried like a baby and I didn’t even have the shits anymore; if only all films were that effective.