Robb Reiner and Steve 'Lips' Kudlow, in 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil'

Dir. Sacha Gervasi
(2009, Not Rated, 81 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

I thought Anvil! The Story of Anvil would be a comedy, like a real-life This is Spinal Tap — the drummer’s name is Robb Reiner and an amplifier really does go to 11. But not so. Following the members of an ‘80s heavy metal band still working towards a heyday that never came, it’s a tough and humane portrait of the music industry as seen from the outside, by working musicians who perform concerts around the world and come home to ordinary lives where they struggle to pay the bills.

The lead singer and driving force of the band is Steve “Lips” Kudlow, now fifty years old and still plugging away after three decades of disappointment. He’s married with a son and drives a truck for a catering company to make a living. Reiner, his best friend, is a construction worker, and their relationship is often contentious. “I’m hard to live with,” Steve confesses in an especially dark moment of their relationship. A lot of rock music biographies chronicle the breakups and makeups of band mates, but in this film their professional woes are compounded by the hardscrabble demands of their daily lives, like putting food on the table.

What gives The Story of Anvil its potency is its universality. Steve and Robb dream of rock-and-roll, but it could be any long-harbored dream. Their families could be our families. Their jobs could be our jobs. And thirty years into the long, hard slog of their music careers, their disillusionment could be ours as well. Director Sacha Gervasi, who was a roadie for the band in the early ‘80s, takes an unvarnished, unsentimental approach to his subjects, who don’t hold back on their feelings of disappointment and resentment. They’re getting older, running out of time, and they know it. In their interviews you can see weariness and doubt creeping through their indefatigable enthusiasm for their music. At one point, Steve goes against his polite Canadian nature by taking a desperate telemarketing job. He’ll mortgage his dignity to keep doing what he loves. He uplifts us and breaks our hearts.

Their endeavor is impractical, stubborn, but they’re not self-deluded. They simply can’t imagine their lives without music, which is as pure a reason as any to be in the business for most of your life. You leave the film wanting to buy an Anvil record whether you like their music or not, because it’s not just about the music. It’s about the men, who deserve a return on their years of hard work. Wouldn’t we all?