Published at: April 10, 2009, 12:46 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
How undeniable is Anvil? The other night at their Los Angeles premiere, they turned Dustin Hoffman into a headbanger.
And if you're asking "Who the fuck is Anvil?", you need to get religion this weekend and check out Sacha Gervasi's amazing documentary, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL. Ostensibly a real-life THIS IS SPINAL TAP built around the inept exploits of the greatest '80s heavy metal band that never quite made it, ANVIL is actually the inspiring story of a cast-iron friendship that's endured four decades' worth of crushing disappointments. At least, they'd be crushing to most of us. But frizzy-haired vocalist/lead guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudrow and laid-back drummer Robb Reiner (can't make that up) have refused to let their dreams of rock stardom die - even though, at the outset of the film, they've recorded twelve albums and are still playing to small crowds of rabid devotees in dingy Canadian nightclubs. What keeps them going? Their bond with one another and the joy of being "in the same room as the people who love you".
But Lips and Robb do want more. They may be in their fifties, and over twenty years removed from the big Japanese tour that broke every band on its lineup save for Anvil (e.g. Scorpions, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi), but they still believe. They know shitty label management on their influential early '80s LPs is the only reason they're not selling out sports arenas all over the globe today, and they're determined to make Anvil the household name it should be.
Gervasi's film begins in 2005 with a hastily thrown together European tour (which doubles as a vacation for Lips from his unrewarding nine-to-five delivering food to Toronto-area schools), and it's not exactly Anvil's return to their former, short-lived glory. But a well-received set at the Sweden Rock Festival gives them a glimpse of what could still be, so, upon returning to Canda, they fling a hail mary demo tape to legendary producer Chris Tsangarides (who collaborated with Anvil during their heyday). Not so shockingly, he likes what he hears. But much to their surprise (because nothing's ever broken their way), he agrees to produce their thirteenth LP, THIS IS THIRTEEN. As has been the recurring theme of Anvil's existence, all does not go smoothly.
ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL is frequently uproarious (just wait until Robb gets to the piece de resistance of his art collection), but the more we get to know the guys, the more invested we are in their very real and utterly unironic quest to be recognized as the trailblazing heavy metal musicians they are. There is a beautiful moment midway through the film where Lips lays it all on the line. "You run out of time! You gotta do it now!" And then Robb, hanging behind the beat like the expert rhythm-keeper he is, calmly finishes his best friend's thought. "While you can."
Hollywood has churned out thousands of sentimental movies urging us to follow our dreams, but their uplift is ephemeral because they never cut the hope with a sense of urgency. ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL hits home because it acknowledges the expiration date. Your gift, your facility for whatever it is you know you do well, will leave you. And once it's gone, it's never coming back.
Not since THE THIN BLUE LINE have I walked out of a documentary more determined to see justice done on behalf of its subjects. Having sat down with Lips, Robb and Sacha (the third chiming in via speakerphone), I am convinced that Anvil will ultimately rule us all. Shit, they've already got Dustin Hoffman.
Sacha Gervasi: To be honest with you, my mind is blowing a little bit. I'm getting the craziest calls.
Steve "Lips" Kudrow: Like what?
Gervasi: It's just... people loving this film. It's unbelievable!
Beaks: You should be used to it by now.
Gervasi: We've been getting amazing press buzz. We've got great stuff going on in England. We had great reactions at the festivals. But I'm looking at this picture of Dustin Hoffman doing the devil horns with Lips and Robb, and... I witnessed this the other night. I'm standing there at the show, and I'm watching the star of THE GRADUATE head-banging to "666"! You tell me who could've flipping predicted that!
Beaks: So Dustin Hoffman is a closet metal head?
Gervasi: No! After the screening, he came up to me and said "This is the most inspirational, moving, beautiful film I think I've ever seen." And he was crying when he said this. And he said, "I hated heavy metal until tonight."
Beaks: Wow. (To Lips and Robb:) You converted Dustin Hoffman!
Robb: (Totally unfazed) There's been a lot of people coming up to us after the movie saying, "Hey, I was not a metal fan, but I am now."
Gervasi: Absolutely! We're finding that John Mayer and the guys from Good Charlotte and The Killers [are fans]. It's bizarre! We just thought, "We really hope Ozzy likes it."
Beaks: (Laughing) But it really does strike a chord. When I was in elementary school, I got really into metal. Kids love metal. The imagery, the fantastic elements... it's perfect. Then we put it a way for a while - as you said you did, Sacha, when you got into David Bowie and Iggy Pop in high school. But it comes back, and you suddenly remember not only how much you loved it, but how good the music is!
Gervasi: I know!
Beaks: That's the most important thing. You guys are great musicians!
Robb: Thank you.
Gervasi: I think the best comment we've had is that you watch this movie and you fall in love with these guys. Then they come out and the reveal is they're a fucking amazing band! They blow people away! That's the thing. The real delight of this is that people are discovering the band for the first time, and they're getting their heads blown off just like I had mine blown off when I was fifteen. It's just awesome.
Beaks: And it's not a "comeback" movie. You guys have been doing this for decades. It's more like a "finally fucking recognize us" movie.
Lips: (Laughing) Exactly! Exactly!
Robb: And rediscovered all in one go. It feels great. We're really enjoying it.
Beaks: Do you guys feel like you've changed your sound at all since you started?
Lips: No, and that's the beautiful part. We haven't had to compromise anything.
Robb: We got here on our own terms.
Lips: I mean, we went on our journeys. We went through really, really heavy stuff. Like ridiculously heavy. And our old, original fans weren't into it because they thought we'd gone too heavy. So we made our journey back to where we were to begin with. "Let's just be good old Anvil!"
Gervasi: By the way, Lips and Robb, I just got an email from [a heavy metal legend who shall go unnamed]. He's asking for your number, so he can call you to congratulate you. He said he just cried after the movie and he's so pleased for you boys. He wants to call you personally just to tell you later. (Lips and Robb seem deeply touched by this.)
Beaks: That's awesome. You know, I love that scene in the film where [Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister] admits that you guys were one of the very few bands that ever took them out live.
Robb: I really tip my hat that he came out and admitted that.
Lips: It's not something I'd be going out and admitting. (Laughs)
Robb: The truth is that there's a big list of bands that that all happened to. But I won't get into that. And that's not what it's about anyway.
Beaks: So you guys were still chugging along, still churning out albums and just being Anvil, and then you get this call from Sacha. When did that happen?
Lips: It was June of 2005.
Robb: We hadn't heard from Sacha in twenty years. And all through those twenty years, we were thinking about him and asking, "Where did Teabag go? What happened to this kid?" And he returned!
Sacha: And, boy, have I fucking returned!
Lips: (Laughing) Now that's a great comeback!
Beaks: (Laughing) He returned, and he'd written a film for Steven Spielberg!
Robb: We had no idea that Sacha had become successful in Hollywood with his new career. No idea. He just came back and said he was looking up some old friends and wanted to see what we'd been doing. And this whole movie thing came out of other elements. He invited Lips and I down, and we got together as old friends to catch up. And Sacha discovered that we were just as devoted to the band as we were twenty-five years ago. We were the same people.
Lips: I come over to his place, and I dumped down the nine albums or whatever that he hadn't heard before. And he's going, "Oh, wow!" (Laughs) He starts looking at the titles, and is like, "'Five Knuckle Shuffle'? What's the hell's that!?!?"
Sacha: I saw titles like "Show Me Your Tits" and "Hair Pie". And I was like, "Fuck! Thank god Anvil hasn't changed!" (More laughter) That weekend I had just wanted to reconnect with my old buddies, and I was sort of shocked that they had not quit. But Lips will tell you, within five minutes it was just fucking awesome, and we were into our old argument about what the best UFO album was. For me, it was like going back to my youth and being able to live it again. And it ignited this thing in me where I remembered how much I love this music and how much I love these guys! I remembered that they'd given me the experience of a lifetime by taking me out on tour. Like... how many kids get to tour with their favorite band? It was unbelievable!
Beaks: It must've been the dirtiest Huck Finn story of all time.
Sacha: It was so dirty, dude, I can't even get into it. It was fucked up amazing! It was the height of metal in the early '80s, America and Canada, everything was on the table... it was crazier than fuck. And it was so fun! But the best part was being able to set up Robb's drum kit and sit behind and get a master class on drumming every fucking night, I remember trying to figure out, "How does he do it!?!?" And, you know, Robb had just turned down the job of playing for Ozzy because he wouldn't turn his back on Lips and the band; he was never going to sell that out. So here I am witnessing one of the best guys in the world doing what he does. It blew my mind - and it still does to this day! They gave me the experience of a lifetime.
And there was so much positive energy there between us that that's where the movie came from: it came from this band, and what their music did for me when I was a kid. In the movie, though it transpires twenty-five years after we first me, you feel that passion and that energy. And it's now turning into some kind of crazy wildfire. I mean, Anvil is in Newsweek!?!? In 2009!?!?
Beaks: It's about fucking time.
Sacha: Who would've thought it? It's delightful when shit like this happens unexpectedly. But what I'm saying is that I connected to them before [shooting the movie]. I took Lips to my mentor, Steve Zaillian - who'd introduced me to Spielberg. And I remember vividly when the idea for the movie came: I was standing in the kitchen, looking out the window and drinking coffee with Steve, and listening as Lips explained the time signatures of speed metal to Steve Zaillian's wife. I looked at Steve and said, "This dude never fucking gave up! He still thinks it's going to happen! It's crazy!" And Steve said, "Yeah. It's crazy and beautiful." So I think we knew at that moment that there was a movie. And we were shooting within a couple of months. There wasn't time to go sit down and pitch to a studio because [Lips and Robb] had already met Tiziana [Arrigoni, their manager] and the tour was being put together. It was now or never. And the only way it was going to get done was if I put my own money into it. I knew we had this window that we had to shoot for, so I just said, "Fuck it, let's go!" I thought initially that we would shoot for a year and it would cost a certain amount of money, but it just turned into a three-year fucking odyssey, man. At certain times in life, you've got to draw a line in the sand and go, "Okay, I'm going for it. I'm going to fight for this one." And ANVIL was my moment where I said, "I believe in this so much, I'm going to go for it and not give a shit about what happens."
Beaks: And the fact that you such trust with these guys. You were able to get moments that most people would never want on camera. (To Lips and Robb:) I' m sure there were times when you guys wanted to say, "Turn those fucking cameras off!"
Robb: Not at all.
Sacha: What I said to them at the beginning was "You guys are fucking hilarious. And your name is 'Robb Reiner', so... we are going to be compared to SPINAL TAP no matter what. We're fucked out of the gate. So we're going to embrace it. But for the movie to work, we have to show everything. And I mean everything: every awkward, embarrassing, tough moment. All that stuff. And that is the thing that will completely confound the stereotype of what people think you guys are. So we're going to start by lulling the audience into thinking this is all "Ha ha, very funny, heavy metal", but then we'll bait-and-switch them. Once they realize who you are, and that you're just like everybody else, and that you have families and dreams... people may be laughing at you in those first few minutes, but by the end they're going to be pumping their fists in the air, supporting what you're doing." That's exactly how it transpired. I explained the journey to them, and, to their credit, they said, "Fuck it. We trust you, Teabag. We're going for it."
Robb: Sacha said, "Robb, I just need you to be yourself." And that was very easy for me.
Sacha: But for you guys to be willing to do that, that's pretty fucking ballsy.
Robb: I trusted Sacha. He's my friend. I could look in his eyes and see to his soul, and I knew it was all in love and goodwill. His intention was to tell our story in the most honest, truthful way he could. And he absolutely delivered what he set out to do.
Beaks: I think those fights we see in the film are fights only good friends can have.
Beaks: I've had those blow-ups before where I think I've destroyed the entire relationship, and then you have to take it all back. Everyone's had those moments. I've seen this movie twice now, and I get teary-eyed every time. I've been that guy shaking, with my lip quivering... (Lips laughs) it's just so human, and there's nothing shameful about it.
Sacha: No, because it's truthful! What's amazing is that people are reaching out to these guys and going, "You know what, man? If you could fucking endure the shit you've been through for thirty-five years, nearly make the big, big time, and still hold out hope, then maybe I can get through this months mortgage payment." That's what people are saying to us. These are the emails we've been getting. One woman said, "I've been thinking about giving up my business, but I saw your movie and decided I can't." This is stuff you could never predict in a million years. We made a movie for us in the hopes that us and our friends would like it. So for the film to have this reach, you can tell there's something going on between the people involved. Because we all love each other, and we really believe in what we're doing. They believe in the band, I believe in the band, and we all believe in the film. It's the real deal, and I think people pick that up.
Robb: I just want to add that in the history of our friendship, we've only had half a dozen disagreements, and he happened to capture a few of them.
Lips: So he can go, "I got you guys!"
Sacha: And we're still constantly amused by each other. If you hang out with us, you'll see that we're having a laugh all the time. Like when Dustin Hoffman came up, we were all like, "What the fuck is Dustin Hoffman doing here?" It's so crazy to us.
Beaks: So are you guys going to do a big tour this summer in support of the movie?
Robb: Currently, we're doing "The Anvil Experience", which is the movie and the band together. But there are big plans to do big things. Right, Sach?
Sacha: Many people don't know this, but when I sat down with Lips at my Uncle Marty's.in Toronto, what I said was, "I want to do this movie, and, if it comes off right, they'll laugh at you in the beginning and completely reevaluate their whole opinion of you [at the end]. And then, at the same venue as the movie theater, you guys will come out on the stage and rock them for, like, three or four songs." That was really the original idea: a live event with the movie and the band.
Lips: Basically, he said that he was going to build us the most amazing opening act any band could ever dream of.
Beaks: I just realized that the Dustin Hoffman thing makes perfect sense. I don't know if you know this, but he's a trained jazz pianist. I interviewed him last year, and he got very wistful at one point telling me that he still dreams of being a jazz musician. He never gave up on that dream.
Beaks: So of course he loved the film.
Sacha: You want to hear something really bizarre? When Dustin was making AGATHA in London in 1979, he was staying at The Inn on the Park. And my mother, who had divorced from my father, was a classically-trained pianist. She was playing the piano in the lobby - she was like the lobby pianist - and Hoffman, while he was staying at The Inn on the Park, befriended her. So one day, I went and had tea with Dustin Hoffman, and I got to be friendly with him. I had my school report - it was the end of the year - and he wrote me the most incredible school report ever. So when I met him the other night, I reminded him of what he wrote about me when I was fourteen years old, and he burst into tears. It was so fucking beautiful full circle.
Beaks: That clinches it: this movie is blessed. So I don't have to wish you guys good luck. It's meant to be.
ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL drops on April 10, 2009. It will also debut this summer on VH-1. But fuck that. Go see it now.