There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Anvil: The Story of Anvil, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
Last week’s Watch the Tunes entry, Last Days Here, was a bit of a bummer what with the whole “assault of a vulnerable adult family member” tragic twist ending, but this time out I’m legitimately psyched to present what amounts to that movie’s opposite number. For starters, before the credits are even done rolling this week we’ll meet Steve "Lips" Kudlow, decked out in bondage gear, just whackin away with a big dildo on his flying V, and it just gets better (worse?) from there. Don’t way I didn’t warn you.
“What if Spinal Tap, but real life?” That’s the basic question posed by the documentary film Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, who used to be a roadie for the one-time up and coming metal band, the titular Anvil, without seeming to stretch a single bit of truth, the doc follows in the footsteps of the Rob Reiner’s legendary mockumentary beat for beat to the point where you start to wonder how much of Spinal Tap lifted directly from Anvil. Besides the career ups and downs (I’ll see your puppet show and raise you a supremely awkward wedding reception!) both groups approached leather-clad swaggering cock-rock with a resolutely straight face that masked tongues planted firmly in cheek. Anvil had “Free as the Wind” in 1983, and then Spinal Tap dropped “Break Like the Wind” a year later? I smell a rat! It’s only a coincidence that Anvil’s drummer just happens to also be named Robb “Robbo” Reiner... right? It’s impossible to understate the parallels, and honestly a shocker that I don’t think anyone in the Anvil doc makes the connection out loud.
Music history is littered with groups that were just too ahead of their time, or just barely mismanaged to have missed the gravy boat. Anvil are a perfect example of one such band, and without this documentary it’s likely they would have remained unheralded. There’s a montage right up front of metal royalty offering up praise to Anvil. Lars, Slash, and Anthrax’s Scott Ian both loved the band. I mean, hell, Slayer’s Tom Araya flat out says they were a thrash band before there was thrash so that’s the gospel truth now, right? “What ever happened to them?” each A-list headbanger wonders aloud. Despite the relative success of early ‘80s albums Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire, Kudlow chalks it all up to having been mishandled by a crappy indie label that didn’t know how to market them. Despite that, they never really quit, even if they all had to go back to working day jobs to make ends meet.
Getting the tone just right on a film like Anvil: The Story of Anvil is tall order, but Gervasi manages to ride the levels perfectly from start to finish. It helps that the dual leads of “Lips” and “Robbo” are just unself-aware enough to allow themselves to get into situations where they have no idea that they’re the butt of a joke, while still being deeply sincere to the point that their petty squabbling with each other ring true and ground the proceedings lest it all floats away from pompous air-baggery. No small part of the pair’s charm, it must be said, comes from the fact that they’re about as Canadian as you can be, with the ‘oots’ and ‘aboots’ you could ever hope for. The tensions that crop up are squashed about as fast as they happen, with Lips profusely apologizing every time he feels like shit’s going off the rails and takes it out on Robbo. It’s the kind of outburst that makes you wonder if it was just mismanagement that sank the band and Lips’ temper didn’t play a small role in there somewhere.
While Last Days Here had a similar arc to Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the latter actually has a very real happy ending beyond the final credits that seems to be sticking. Since the premiere of the film, they’ve been bumped up a few sizes in festival fonts around the world, toured as an opener for AC/DC, and finally even made their network TV debut on The Tonight Show during that thin sliver of time where it was hosted by Conan O'Brien. Best of all, since the movie premiered, they’ve released three albums! These are nice guys, it turns out, who are still somehow (against all odds!) making a real good go of having a good time rocking and rolling well into their fifties.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.