He-Man headbangers beware: Anvil! The Story of Anvil will make you weep like a little girl. Screenwriter (The Terminal), first-time director and long-time Anvil devotee Sacha Gervasi’s amazing film follows metal band Anvil, the criminally overlooked fire-forgers from Toronto, Canada. Ultimately, the movie emerges as a tearjerker about enduring friendships and male bonding. In addition to having all of its audio amps cranked to 11, Anvil! is charged by some serious emotional wattage as well. It’s tragic, joyful, sad and hopeful—and possibly the most stirring look at this misunderstood genre ever made.
When we first meet Steve Kudlow, it’s 1984. Metal and big hair are king and Kudlow’s band, Anvil, provides both. We watch the quartet play a massive, neo-Woodstock festival with mile-long crowds that coat the surrounding landscape like some apocalyptic infection. As “Lips,” Kudlow’s onstage alter ego, this id-powered maniac uses a spongy white sex toy to pluck his guitar. “Metal on metal,” snarls Lips between bouts of marital-aid musicianship. “It’s the only way!” Behind him, drummer Robb Reiner brutalizes a double-bass trap set, while other band members lift and drop their guitars in carefully choreographed, twin-axe-attack sync.
Cranking out riffs at festivals with Bon Jovi, Scorpions and Whitesnake! Laying down a brain-impaling collection of albums, including Hard ‘N’ Heavy, Metal On Metal and Strength of Steel! Winning the adulation of cutting-edge peers like Anthrax, Metallica and Slayer! Anvil was going places.
Or were they?
Flash forward to the present. Something’s not right. While power-chord peers Metallica have racked up nearly 100 million records sold, Kudlow and Reiner still struggle. Day jobs include delivering coolers of food for a catering service and demolishing construction sites. Fame never came.
In Anvil! The Story of Anvil blood brother bandmates Kudlow and Reiner endure a horrifically jinxed European tour, in which crooked venue owners, missed trains and disappointing crowds spell out certain doom. At a Transylvanian metalfest booked at a 10,000-person-capacity venue, only 174 attendees show up. “How much more love could one person put into something?” asks a despairing Kudlow, to someone, somewhere. It’s like a plea to the Almighty for vindication after 30 years of relentless hard work.
Sound depressing? Well, here’s the extraordinary thing about Anvil!: Even though the band endures a hell of humiliations that would make Spinal Tap wince, they doggedly continue to wave the Anvil flag. While the assumed stereotype is that most groups with their experience and histories make tons of dough, Kudlow and Reiner are painfully aware of the reality that “99.9 percent of bands never get paid.” They treat playing as a privilege. “When we’re on tour,” proclaims Kudlow, “we’re on vacation.”
In it for the money? Hell, no; they have no money. (Kudlow’s repeated mantra is, “We aren’t getting paid!”) In it for the chicks? Are you kidding? Kudlow and Reiner might be the horny lyrical scribes behind “Motormount” and “Butter Bust Jerky,” but both are now married with children. Anvil! is inspiring because its heroes wholeheartedly believe in what they do—even after enduring a million reasons to lose faith.
Sadly, Anvil! also suggests the reason for their debt-ridden obscurity. Kudlow and Reiner are too damn decent for fame. One scene shows Kudlow trying his hand at a telemarketing job, but he’s too honest to hard-sell customers during cold calls. Meanwhile, Reiner’s ironclad allegiance to his emotional, sometimes-infuriating comrade is a far cry from the legions of musicians willing to cut-and-run following the lure of a higher-paying gig.
In the end, we’re left staring with admiration and awe at these two amazingly persistent, long-haired dudes. If ever there was a band deserving of an honorary lifetime achievement in heavy metallurgy award, Anvil is it. In the paragraphs that follow, Kudlow explains the emotional pull of the film and confirms the ongoing popularity of heavy metal music 30 years after Anvil initially unleashed their influential, skull-crushing hybrid of sounds.
KJ Doughton (MM): With Metallica recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the time seems right for Anvil! The Story of Anvil. In fact, I understand that several of Metallica’s old supporters were also there for Anvil.
Steve Kudlow (SK): We’re all connected. Initially, many of the same people who were involved with Metallica were involved with us. We were actually previous to Metallica; we were the first guys who stayed at the homes of famous, hardcore metal fans like Rockin’ Ray and Metal Joe during early tours. Eventually, the guys from Metallica stayed at their houses as well.
MM: Unless viewers are familiar with the underground metal scene, I’m sure that your film is an eye-opening education on how massive and long-lived this subculture has become.
SK: There’s a whole underworld of heavy metal. Hundreds of bands sell a lot of records and CDs, and they’re not in the mainstream. Basically, this movie depicts what all the young bands are doing, or bands that haven’t made it to the biggest popular levels of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and so forth. Those bands are the very, very small percentage of bands that make it. But there are literally thousands of bands that don’t.
It’s especially remarkable in Europe. It’s to the point where certain bands do a summer festival circuit once a year, make all their money and don’t work for the rest of the year. If you’re picking up a couple hundred thousand dollars for doing the festival circuit… you can turn one year’s wages on a quick tour. Then you can carry on, write your music, do whatever and come back the next year with your new album. A lot of bands clock their writing and releases so that they can take advantage of that situation.
MM: I understand that director Sacha Gervasi was once a fan who followed Anvil around on tour.
SK: Sacha was a kid who entered our change room at a time when there was so much going on. We paid this kid such attention that it became a novelty: ‘This is our biggest fan. Let’s take him on the road, just to blow his lights.’ That good turn deserved another. The good karma we had 30 years ago came back to reward us. It’s a beautiful, circular thing. What we gave to a fan came back to us. Nothing could be more poignant.
MM: Anvil! is a surprisingly emotional film. This quality is not what people expect from a film about heavy metal.
SK: I’m the type of person who could really bring that kind of emotion. I wear my heart on my sleeve and cry when I have to. I’m not ashamed of it or shy about it. I think Sacha’s intuition, in seeing that, was amazing. He knew that if anyone was going to bring unrelenting emotion to this project, it was gonna be Lips! (laughs) There is no inhibition for me. I’m an open book with nothing to hide.
MM: When Anvil started out in the early ’80s, it seemed like music was much more tangible. You had slabs of vinyl and demo tapes versus downloaded songs from the Internet.
SK: Yeah, but understand this about the genre of heavy metal: That is still really relevant; most die-hard fans must have the hard copy. It’s cult stuff. It becomes almost religious. I don’t mean that in any kind of derogatory or negative way, it’s just that the fans become very locked in, devoted followers of specific bands. To the layman outside the box looking in, they probably can’t tell the difference between bands! (laughs)
MM: Many bands would have given up after enduring the struggles depicted in your film. But you’re still actively touring and recording, even into middle age.
SK: Middle age does not mean that life is over. It could be the beginning of something new. Life has many different turns in it. There’s always hope. We all have to understand that—what it means to be alive. Something could come up and surprise you. This film is one of those incredible things.