Thankfully, with the new year beginning on a Friday, there's basically a one-week vacation from new releases, so over the next several days I'm going to take the opportunity to review some films from 2009 that I either didn't have a chance to see during their release, or couldn't find the time to review, in addition to whatever crap is still lingering in the multiplexes before it gives way to the even greater crap of January first-run releases.
First up, one of the marvelous rock documentaries of this or any other era, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. It is, as you might suspect, about Anvil, and Anvil is a metal rock group from Ontario, Canada that formed in the mid-'70s, began recording in the early '80s, played the Super Rock Festival in Japan in 1984, and influenced some future superstar metal bands (Lars Ulrich and Slash both appear early in the film to give glowing testimonials). But for the men of Anvil, there was no stardom. For a reason that can only be waved away as the caprice of history, they never had their big break, and despite an outsized level of influence over the form, never became more than a tiny little band beloved by aging aficionados of thrash metal in its purest, earliest form.
And yet Anvil lives. Despite never attaining stardom - indeed, never even becoming a reliable source for beer money for the band members - Anvil never disbanded and never stopped playing, and that is where filmmaker Sacha Gervasi found things when he got in touch with the group in 2005. In the early '80s, Gervasi was an Anvil roadie, and eventually grew up to become a bit of a screenwriter with two credits to his name: The Big Tease and The Terminal. If the timing is anything to go by, it was this latter film - directed by some small-timer named Steven Spielberg - that put Gervasi in a position to get back in touch with the group with the intention of filming a documentary about their travails. Perhaps this was Gervasi's attempt to bring his former favorite band in the world to greater prominence; perhaps he was just damned curious about its fate himself.
What he found makes for an interesting enough story in sheer music history terms; but Anvil! is so much more than just a "Where are they now?" exposé of a group that virtually nobody has ever heard of. It is as well a stirring tribute to human tenacity in the face of unendurable odds; This Is Spinal Tap played straight and, by virtue of being true, given a deeply moving tragic edge. We could accuse the band's frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow and his high school buddy, drummer Robb Reiner, of possessing a Quixote-like foolishness masquerading as dogged professionalism, perhaps, and it is much to Gervasi's credit that he doesn't just present the men as noble saints fighting the world to make their dream come true. That's part of it, but at the same time the real world keeps sneaking in around the edges of the band's fantasies. Poverty is a very real element of these men's lives - Lips notes acerbically that bassist Glenn Five can't even afford a house to live in - and Kudlow and Reiner's wives are seen to be suffering for their husband's time-sucking, moneyless hobby; suffering happily, maybe, but suffering nonetheless.
Mainly, though, the film's perspective is one of awe: awe that any pair of men could wait so patiently for year after year, into the decades, and still keep the faith that their dreams are just around the corner even in the face of the most humiliating setbacks. Gervasi picked a serendipitous moment to re-enter the band's life: in 2005, Lips was approached by a European fan named Tiziana Arrigoni, who had taken it upon herself to arrange a month-plus continental tour on Anvil's behalf, and believed she could promise them €1500 per gig. So off to Europe they went, only to find that despite Arrigoni's best efforts, the tour was not remotely the success, artistically or financially, that anyone anticipated; things got bad enough that Reiner tried to quite, although Kudlow was able to talk him off the ledge, and by the time they played the Monsters of Transylvania rock fest to a crowd of fewer than 200 souls, having been promised 5000, any notion that this trip might have been their big break went out the window.
Undismayed, Kudlow next decided to approach the well-regarded metal producer Chris Tsangarides, the man behind Anvil's most artistically perfect album, 1982's Metal on Metal, to see if he might be willing to help them with their proposed thirteenth album (I don't wonder that the presence of Gervasi's cameras helped embolden the band to make this jump. Tsangarides was delighted by their demo tape, and glad to help out; but then that poverty thing struck again, and only a loan from Kudlow's sister let This Is Thirteen become a reality. But even then, the indifference of record labels proved a sticking point, and the band was forced to sell CDs off their website.
The same dramas play out over and over again over the course of all these months: Kudlow has panicked fits centered around his fear that he will never justify the legend that he and others have built around Anvil, always unconvincingly reassuring himself that the important thing is the music, and that he continues to play for the people who have always stood by him; Reiner is always on the verge of giving up, for unlike Kudlow, he seems to have interests and pursuits outside of the band, including painting (and if he's never going to have a gallery show all his own, he's still not half-bad and clearly puts thought into what he's doing). And the viewer starts to gain an awareness through all of this of the two men's indomitable souls, which will not let reality or practicality keep them from being Anvil, for being Anvil is the only thing they have ever known, and the only thing they have ever wanted. They are noble fools, and in recording their fevered commitment to one unattainable dream, Gervasi has created a sometimes heartbreaking tribute to the human capacity for optimism and ambition. In the final moments, when they once again play a Japanese fest, to what is all but certainly the largest crowd they'd seen in the 22 years since Super Rock, Anvil! honestly and effortlessly becomes one of the most uplifting and inspirational movies of the year.
Thanks to the movie, the men of Anvil had greater success in 2009 than in any year of their existence; maybe even more than their entire career combined. Necessarily, this is not mentioned in the film, which ends instead with the standard "what happened to the subjects during post-production" title cards, suggesting that Kudlow and Robb keep on keeping on, to hell with the promise of success. And while, in real life, I am quite happy for Anvil and hope that they continue to ever greater things, the end of the movie is better art, for it does not give us a glib happy ending but a reassuringly pragmatic one: these men who have always defined themselves as Anvil, nothing but Anvil, continue to fight their fight, to be this thing that they have created for themselves, for in the moment that they cease to be Anvil they cease to live. It is this depiction of tenacity unrewarded, striving for the sake of always moving forward, that makes Anvil! one of the most moving documentaries I have seen in a rather long time.