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On Movies: 'Anvil!' plays like 'Spinal Tap' - for real

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - In "Sympathy for the Devil," when Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones slips into the seductive voice of the vile creature he describes as "a man of wealth and taste," he politely asks for permission to introduce himself. Then, against a background of shifting polyrhythm, as he power-prances around the stage, he launches a sometimes oblique recounting of historical tragedies, tragedies that, he suggests, can be blamed as much on mankind as on Lucifer.

The Canadian heavy metal group Anvil doesn't mess around with all that foppish preening and prancing and equivocating and all those historical allusions. In "666," one of their signature songs (it would take a cosmic stretch to call it "a hit"), they get right to it:

"Chains of death have been unleashed
Ripped and tattered stricken from hell
Sold my soul but the contract's been breached
Entering humanity from death's well

Your fate is sealed revelation is near
I hear your screams but I thrive off your fear. . ."

Greasy long hair bouncing, guitars chugging out an unmelodic four-four beat, eyes wild and mouths wide open, the group shouts out a few more tangled Satanic metaphors and then gets to the high point of the song. That consists of Anvil and its audience, no matter how small, screaming over and over again the words "Six! Six!! Six!!!" Over and over and over again. They've been doing it for more than 25 years, and it's too late to stop now.

The surprisingly engaging new film "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" is (I'm 99 percent sure) what it says it is, a documentary about a couple of middle-age guys from Toronto, a drummer and a lead singer, who keep playing rock and roll - more rock than roll -- despite massive lack of interest from the general public. At times, when they can get a gig at all, they'll dig up a bass player and maybe a lead guitarist and play for a few dozen people in one of those outback Butler Building bars with a pool table in the center and fistfights outside. They both have day jobs, and families, but the dream of hitting the big time never dies.

Because "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" bears some almost eerie similarities to director Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap," a funny and oddly sweet mock documentary about an aging heavy metal band, it is tempting to think this funny and oddly sweet little movie about an aging heavy metal band is also a mock documentary, a parody. I mean, for starters, the drummer for Anvil is named Robb Reiner. But considerable in-depth research by way of Google and Wikipedia, plus big recent stories in the New Yorker and Newsweek, have convinced me it's real.

Lead singer Steve Kudlow, known as Lips - his physical appearance aside, he is, to say the least, a chatty fellow - met Robb Reiner when both were Toronto teen-age musicians in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, having formed Anvil, they briefly were in the spotlight as an up-an-coming band, playing a festival with the likes of Bon Jovi and Black Sabbath. The band never went anywhere after that, but it made 12 albums; and Robb and Lips kept plugging away.

Lips got a day job delivering catered food; Robb got one involving a jackhammer, which fit in with his need to make loud, repetitive noises. And they kept playing rock music.

Transylvania 

Early in the movie, a Swiss-Italian woman named Tiziana - at least, that's what she says her name is -- gets in touch with them and announces that Anvil is still big where she comes from and she has booked them on a European tour. And she has, sort of. The tour begins rather promisingly in Scandinavia, but things begin to fall apart once they hit Eastern Europe. They discover that Tiziana has not made the necessary reservations for transportation and can't get club owners to pay them. She cries a lot, and is comforted by the lead guitarist, whom she eventually marries.

The end of the tour is a festival in Transylvania, the real one, in Romania. Lips and Robb are hoping for between 5,000 and 10,000 people for their set at the Monsters of Transylvania festival. They get 174.

New Record 

Back home, only briefly daunted, they decide they need a new record. Lips borrows $12,000 from his older sister - this movie is, as much as anything, about family - and he and Robb hire a big-time producer to record the album. They can't sell a record company on it, and so they press a thousand CDs and release it themselves. And so it goes. Rock is what they do. In a wonderful quote, Lips says of the European debacle, "Everything went wrong. But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on."

Director Sacha Gervasi, once an Anvil roadie, has a keen sense of what to show us and what to skip. As the movie progresses, he probes deeper and deeper into the characters of Robb and Lips, whose relationship is very much like that of an old married couple who continue to have the same ferocious arguments they have had for decades, but always make up.

Lips, at least, is not afraid to tell Robb that he fights with him because he loves him, in a moment that is funny and embarrassing and sweet, all at the same time. You could say the same thing about their descriptions of what they do as "art." Indeed, you could say the same thing about the movie as a whole.

In the end, Robb and Lips are not rock musicians because of the girls or the drugs or the money, because, except for the odd joint, they don't seem to be getting those things. They are in it because they love it, or at least love the reactions they get from audiences.

You don't have to like heavy metal music to enjoy "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." This is not a concert film - the music comes in fairly short bursts, and the emphasis is often as much on the audience as it is on the band.

Live in the Loop

But if you do enjoy heavy metal music - "thrash metal" may be a more exact description of Anvil's mode of attack -- you might want to catch the band live after the 9 p.m. showing of the movie at the Tivoli on Saturday, April 25. Robb and Lips, who are on tour with the movie, will also be present for questions after that night's 7 p.m. showing.

Opens April 24

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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