In terms of exposure, a documentary along the lines of Anvil! The Story of Anvil — a brisk, entertaining feature now receiving a modest theatrical release — is probably the biggest break an unknown Canadian metal band led by two men in their 50s could hope for. But Anvil’s front man, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, and drummer, Robb Reiner, are still holding out for more: major label attention, or at least a few thousand screaming fans at their every stopover. It’s to director Sacha Gervasi’s credit that Anvil! never devolves into an outright point-and-laugh fest or a Wrestler-esque yesterday’s-people-in-today’s-world lament. Gervasi does stumble into a few smaller traps, but focuses mainly on the uncommon, almost pathological, optimism that has kept the band together and productive for more than three decades.
The early-80s archival footage at the beginning of the film shows that the band once impressed sizable crowds. Interspersed are interviews wherein famous peers testify to Anvil’s greatness, the highlight being Lars Ulrich’s supposition that the band’s failure to break through commercially had something to do with “the Canadian element.” During this setup, however, perhaps too strong a case for the criminal under-appreciation of the band is made. Later on it sometimes seems as if Gervasi and his editors have no choice but to cut nervously around the present-day incarnation of Anvil performing, careful not to let a sense that the band’s best days are behind them upset the film’s dynamics. Gervasi also awkwardly references Spinal Tap several times — for instance, the band visits Stonehenge after a recording session, and Kudlow jokingly speculates on the origins of the rock formation —as if to recognize and then quarantine that landmark rockumentary’s narrative of precipitous decline.
The bulk of Anvil!, though, is a pretty straightforward document of a disappointing tour of European dives and the recording of the band’s 13th album, with a focus all the while on the abiding but nonetheless contentious friendship between Kudlow, a talkative and emotional family man, and Reiner, a withdrawn sometimes painter of depopulated landscapes. Though watching Kudlow eagerly hand-deliver his latest album to several receptionist gatekeepers is a dismaying sight to see, the joke’s not entirely on him. He has no illusions (well, OK, maybe a few) about the fact that he’s getting older, just a lot of dreams about what his enormous investment in Anvil might yet yield.