after 1984's heavy-metal satire this is spinal tap started the mockumentary craze, most documentary makers pandered to audiences through sarcasm and propaganda. but the true-life heavy-metal anvil finally-beautifully-restores the genre. director sacha gervasi follows the canadian band's career after their brief moment of fame during the 1980s-admired by members of slayer, metallica, anthrax, megadeth and guns n' roses, then dropping off the radar. now family men in their fifties, anvil's co-founders-vocalist steve "lips" ludlow and drummer robb reiner-work grunt jobs but still play rock 'n' roll and tour when on vacation.
gervasi chronicles their lifelong friendship: ludlow and reiner met when they were 14 years old. they're a goofy, solemn duo, but not like the buddies in an apatow comedy. anvil is largely about brotherhood. the bonding trivialized in i love you, man's homophobic gags (about two strangers who share a love for the canadian band rush), here becomes the basis for a moving study of working-class dreams. metal is not a joke to the guys who recorded the wonderfully tautological "metal on metal." pointing to an old picture of himself with his first drum kit, robb says "look at me, i'm smiling! and i don't smile." gervasi doesn't succumb to ridicule or vh1's bands reunited nostalgia. initial scenes of anvil's most avid fans who roar or drink beer through their nostrils resemble the lunatic eccentricity that christopher guest, one of spinal tap's writer-performers, went on to emphasize in his own mockumentary features. but gervasi subtly respects the frustrations that give birth to a sub-culture. instead of catering to fanboy elitism with the arcana of heavy metal, anvil observes the way social identity (primarily male) can coalesce around music and performance. it's not clichéd rebellion. ludlow's s and m stage gear and rabid routines waving a sex toy demonstrate humorously redirected aggression and a healthy, harmless release of improper passions. ludlow and reiner exude boyish impudence even into adulthood. yet with visions of cactus, led zeppelin and kiss rocking in their heads, they still want to succeed on the mainstream's most conventional terms: recognition and reward. where springsteen's dreary theme song for the slovenly the wrestler sentimentalized thwarted american endeavor, anvil is more rigorous. it refutes the capitalist american idol dogma that affluence and fame are what matters. ludlow and reiner love what they do and have mastered their art. their journeyman skills define the dedication, vision and courage in their character. we see ludlow labor as a deliveryman and reiner do demolition work; but we know what's inside them. it complicates their hellish tours playing in ratholes to tiny crowds or being cheated out of pay. ludlow and reiner's faith contradicts yet ennobles heavy metal's badass mythology. (ludlow's inability to work as a telemarketer confirms his basic decency.) there's dignity in this ordinariness: middle-aged men staying true to what others call leisure pursuits, living modestly in two-story houses with narrow backyards. it is no surprise that gervasi co-wrote spielberg's the terminal, where a stateless immigrant was drawn to america by ideals exemplified by the lowliest among them, black jazz musicians. anvil similarly reveals individual virtue in ludlow and reiner's struggle against the odds. when anvil can't find adequate representation, the film also works as a music industry critique: a record-label honcho looking for the next big thing stays indifferent to anvil's artistry ("organized criminals," reiner calls them). this all-american resentment testifies to the world's forsaken dreams. reiner refers to a stack of cds, pointing out the thousands who bid in "the lottery of rock 'n' roll." through the stress this puts on his friendship with ludlow, the clash of wistful and practical temperaments become as enlightening as demon lover diary, joel demott's fertile 1982 inquiry into the travails of indie horror-film wannabes. gervasi shows that even wives and families understand that anvil's forfeiture of luxury is not the folly of boy-men but the awful sacrifice of committed artists. (juxtaposing robb's sister's bitterness to his wife's devotion is a moment worthy of heavy-metal folk-scholar donna gaines.) during a mismanaged european tour, gervasi shows the group stranded at a train station looking at a closed ticket counter. this shot is not proud of itself like the endless images of failure in the wrestler that turn unsuccessful male ambition into a freak show. instead, ironies and felicities enrich this doc about two jewish boys who both celebrate christmas and sing black sabbath serenades: they also find acceptance for their art far away from home. japan's superrock festival brackets the film and a visit to stonehenge is richer than spinal tap's silliness. to a culture that ridicules conviction and only cares about winners, anvil presents ludlow and reiner not as losers but as men with an eternally youthful faith-reflected in their goofy-to-blissful smiles.
anvil directed by sacha gervasi runtime: 80 min.