Heavy Mental: The Story of Anvil

anvil.jpg
Photo by Phil Regandanz
WRITTEN BY
Tom Roston

Something was wrong. On the second night in Prague shooting the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, cinematographer Chris Soos approached director Sacha Gervasi looking deadly serious.

The subjects of the film, the semi-legendary Canadian heavy-metal band Anvil, had just gotten lost driving the rinky-dink RV they'd rented for the Czech leg of their 2005 European tour. Unable to read the road signs, they showed up two hours late to a gig, which led to a shoving match with the owner of the club, who tried to pay the band in bowls of goulash. Then a lawyer emerged from the crowd and handed his card to Anvil's lead singer, Lips, and drummer, Robbo, declaring, "Anvil should be playing before a thousand people, minimum, given your reputation. And you are not. And you can ask yourself, 'Why are we not doing that?' "

"I've been asking myself that for 20 years," Lips said.

"I could answer that in one word," Robbo added. "Two words...three words: We haven't got good management."

It had been a sad, hilarious day. And then Soos pulled Gervasi aside for a heart-to-heart.

"He had the look of a man who was dying of cancer," Gervasi recalls. "He said, 'My crew doesn't have to know, but tell me: Are they actors?' That's all he wanted to know. My own cameraman couldn't believe it was completely real."

The 42-year-old London-born Gervasi is a good storyteller, a screenwriter (The Big Tease, The Terminal) who has plied his trade in Hollywood for more than a decade. He recounts the tale over lunch in the Brooklyn Marriott, after which the members of Anvil -- Steve "Lips" Kudlow, 52, Robb "Robbo" Reiner, 50, and bassist Glenn "Glenn Five" Gyorffy, 38 -- will head to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a screening of the documentary. When the movie ends, they'll play in the theater's café.

"Everything in that movie is 100 percent natural and real," Robbo says. "We could have cameras going right here, filming what's happening now. That's all that that was."

And then, as if on cue, Lips interjects with some commentary that could be culled from the stoner-wisdom dialogue in the film. "I am not an actor," he says. "When I walk out of the movie, I'm still me." He stares down at the dish of coleslaw before him, trying to get a grip on his train of thought. (Indeed, several people present have just gone downstairs to smoke pot.)

Lips regains his footing: "So when I find myself speaking and I hear my voice and act like I do in the movie, it's very odd." He pauses for a few beats. "It's really weird, man. Very odd."

"You're freaking yourself out," says Gervasi, trying to bring Lips back to earth.

Ever since Anvil! The Story of Anvil premiered at Sundance last January, it has been teasing audiences with the question, How could these guys be real? Even John Cooper, head programmer at the festival, thought the film was a hoax when he first saw it. He scoured the Internet until he found a long list of Anvil albums and determined that truth can indeed be funnier than fiction.

Centered on two unlikely heroes living in the gutter but looking up at the stars, the documentary has won audience awards at festivals in Los Angeles and Sydney. Scenes of on-the-road miscues, Robbo waxing poetic about a poop painting hanging in his home, and Lips delivering a discursive soliliquy about how his life "couldn't get any worse" have drawn favorable comparisons with that other film about a hapless, never-quite-was heavy-metal band, This Is Spinal Tap.

The movie traces the history of Anvil from their '70s origins as a group of nice Jewish headbangers in a Toronto suburb through their brief heyday in the early '80s, when they sported dog collars and tight pants with huge bulges and were prone to synchronized guitar-pounding in songs such as "Butter-Bust Jerky" and "Show Me Your Tits." Lips enjoyed wearing bondage harnesses and playing his Flying V with a dildo, and he even appeared on a Canadian talk show, defending the band's sexist -- or was that sexy? -- lyrics.

But the band never made it big. While similar acts sold millions of records and then self-destructed, Anvil plugged along, releasing albums on their own or with minor indie-label support. The documentary so closely echoes Spinal Tap in details and narrative arc (you've got boyhood pals sitting in a diner recounting the first song they wrote together shortly before a huge fight; an amp that goes to 11; a visit to Stonehenge; a climactic, redemptive gig in Japan; and a drummer whose name appears to be a misspelling of Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner's) that it could be sold as a real-life version of the 1984 mockumentary, and Gervasi is happy to oblige.

"There are deliberate parallels," he says. "I wanted audiences to see that, and then I wanted to subvert it. They are Spinal Tap, for real, but they are also two guys in a complex, deep friendship. You're laughing at Lips and Robb because they're 50-year-old guys playing heavy metal. But then you think, 'Wait, they are more authentically connected to their dreams than most of the people in the audience.' "

And so it makes strange sense that, after 30 years of toiling in obscurity, of enduring record-store signings where no one showed up, of having to work dead-end jobs such as sweeping up doughnuts in a parking lot, it would take a documentary so similar to Spinal Tap to finally, possibly, when it is released to theaters early next year, bring Anvil the attention they've been craving all these years. It's a realization Lips quickly sobered up to when Gervasi first approached him with the idea to do the film.

"I am going to give myself to the world and validate everything I've done," Lips recalls thinking. "I felt, 'Ah, this is the moment I've been waiting for.' I've been doing this band for 30 years for this movie."

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