Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Heart of Rock and Roll

Upon first seeing the trailer for Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I knew it was a must-see film.

The immediate thought is that Anvil seemed to be a perfect hybrid of American Movie and This is Spinal Tap. Indeed, Spinal Tap references are peppered throughout the film. The band Anvil visits Stonehenge at one point. Lead singer "Lips" slyly shouts "Hello Cleveland!" while they wind their way to the stage. Hell, the drummer of Anvil is named Robb Reiner! And of course, an amp is turned to 11. The similarities can't be ignored, but perception is often turned 180 degrees because these guys are real. It's justifiably hilarious when Spinal Tap are upstaged by a puppet show or denied hotel rooms, but watching Anvil left on a European train platform, gear spread out behind them, with no way to get to their next tour stop, is something completely different.

The direction of this film is a bit clunky. We're told Anvil was on the verge of stardom in 1984, but never really given a reason why they didn't break though as Slayer or Anthrax did (Bad management? Bad record label? It's a mystery.) Some seemingly key plot points are glossed over way too quickly, or not at all. But despite the storytelling shortcomings, the film works because every moment Lips and Reiner are on screen, they're beyond compelling. They've been best friends since they were teenagers, and now in their 50's, they've fully accepted their day jobs delivering meals and working construction, but have never stopped believing (Lips, especially) that the big is still there for the taking.

We're conditioned to view the act of relentlessly chasing one's dream as something to be proud of, but that's not always the case. The first half of the film, Lips seems almost ridiculously naive in accepting a European tour offer from a "promoter" who he seemingly only knows through a few e-mails. It's not a surprise that the tour is less than successful, but you find yourself actually rooting for Lips when he shows a backbone for the first time in the film and threatens to beat down a bar manager for withholding payment. At the end of the disastrous tour, the blinding optimism still exists, with Lips qualifying that "things went dramatically wrong, but at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on."

From there, the ups and downs continue as Anvil goes back into the studio with the producer who crafted their best early albums. Excruciating attempts at telemarketing for income, family fund raising, painfully tense recording sessions, and uncomfortable record label pitches follow, all leading up to a festival invitation that surprises in several unexpected ways. The biggest surprise is the degree to which you root for a band you had no opinion of 90 minutes prior.

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