Heavy mettle: the never-say-die story of Anvil

September 11, 2009

It was recently my great pleasure to meet and chat with Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner of Canadian heavy metal band Anvil, as well as Sacha Gervasi and Rebecca Yeldham, the director and producer of ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL, now showing in Australian cinemas. Here’s some of what went down.

lips robb

As if you needed further evidence that making assumptions tends to be a mistake, consider the curious case of the new documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Who could have expected that a film chronicling the hard-luck story of a Canadian heavy metal band that enjoyed a brief taste of the big time back in the early ‘80s before spending the next two decades rocking out in relative obscurity would turn out to be one of the most hilarious and heart-warming movies of the year? And who could have anticipated that the film would not only reverse the fortunes of Anvil, well-regarded by their peers and adored by their small but devoted legion of fans but long unable to catch that one big break, but also make stars out of the band’s two mainstays, loquacious frontman Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and introspective drummer Robb Reiner?

Well, that’s exactly what’s happened. The movie, directed by Sacha Gervasi, a long-time Anvil fan (and roadie for the band during his teen years) and Hollywood screenwriter (he penned the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks movie The Terminal), is a warts-and-all look at the band founded by Lips and Robb at the age of 14, when they vowed to “rock together forever”. After touring the world and sharing the stage with the likes of Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and The Scorpions in the ‘80s, however, they found interest in their band waning and eventually returned home to Toronto, Canada, taking day jobs to make ends meet. But the vow remained unbroken, and Anvil continued to produce album after album, play gig after gig. For a while there, though, only a few people were buying the records and rocking up to the shows.

When Gervasi re-appeared on the scene, however, he was instantly taken with the never-say-die attitude of Anvil’s core members, Lips and Robb. “I met them in 1982 and they were just great, and I think the way they treated me displayed character that was quite different to other bands I’d met at the time,” says the London-born Gervasi. “I’d met a lot of big bands when I was a kid and a lot of them, to be honest, were a bit cunty. They were not interested in some snot-nosed 15-year-old fan; they were more interested in finding the girls and the coke. Anvil was the exact opposite. They were really interested in finding out why the fans were into the music. And that it was the opposite of anything I’d experienced caught my attention first. You could tell they were fans and not wanky rock stars, even though at one point – around ’82, ’83 – they were like the hottest band in heavy metal. So I knew them and I loved them and I lost touch with them for 20 years and then I got back in touch and was astonished to discover they had that same attitude, that openness and warmth and sense of fun. Because of that, it was immediately apparent to me that there might be a story there.”

For their part, Lips and Robb – it seems altogether too formal to refer to them by their surnames; once you see the movie, you’ll probably feel the same – placed their absolute trust in Gervasi, confident that the filmmaker would be good to his word to present the band in the best possible light. And even though Anvil goes through its share of misadventures throughout the course of the film, including a disastrous European tour ‘masterminded’ by passionate but incompetent fan/manager Tiziana Arrigoni, the passion the life-long friends share for their music and their desire to keep rockin’ till they drop (despite varying levels of discouragement from friends, family members and industry figures) often comes across as downright heroic.

“He had full access; he filmed 320 hours of madness,” says Robb. “And there are times when I asked myself ‘What kind of fuckin’ movie are these guys making?’ I mean, he filmed everything! But we trusted him because his intention was to help us. And in the best possible way, he did.”

Lips, however, takes a more philosophical attitude to Gervasi’s re-emergence in the story of Anvil. “I expected everything that has happened, and it’s now beginning to fulfil my expectations,” he says. “I know that seems like an odd thing to say but my expectations were that this thing is going all the way. It’s a miracle. There’s no such thing as half a miracle. The miracle began with us making friends with this 15-year-old kid who grew up to be not only a screenwriter but a screenwriter for Steven Spielberg. And he comes back into our lives 20 years later to make this movie? It’s my moment! I knew it from the second it began!”

In contrast to the more subdued Robb (who has a terrifically dry, understated sense of humour), Lips is open and candid about Anvil’s chequered past and brighter-by-the-minute future. “The way I am as a person, well, look at me,” he says with a laugh. “Do I shut up? I’ll tell you everything you want to know and everything you don’t want to know! Sacha could have done another band but then he wouldn’t have had me. I’m not patting myself on the back but you do need someone who’s going to wear their heart on their sleeve and tell people what’s really up. I don’t look at it as an act of bravery as much as it’s just me. Other musicians might think it’s really brave that I cry on film or let the camera see empty clubs. We were showing the world the truth. Generally when people make movies it’s to glorify themselves or put themselves on a pedestal; this did the exact opposite.”

And while Anvil! The Story of Anvil could be viewed as just a film about a band, or even just a film about a heavy metal band, it has far more reach than that. The music is what drives Lips and Robb, and also what binds them in many ways, but the movie also pays tribute to their devotion to their dream and their unwillingness to surrender it in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds. “I knew Lips was a star when I was a kid,” says Gervasi. “But coming back after 25 years of things not happening for them and finding his enthusiasm and belief undimmed, that’s star quality. And the two of them together, it’s fucking hilarious. It’s hilarious and insane and heartbreaking. It’s a heavy metal love story. Who they are is why people are responding.”

There are scenes in the film where members of the two men’s families suggest it’s time to let the dream go. But there are others where parents and siblings show faith in Lips and Robb, leading to one of the key lines in the movie: “Family’s important shit, man.” (It’s Lips saying this, of course.) And Lips reveals that Anvil! The Story of Anvil has done plenty to open the eyes of people previously sceptical about his passion for metal. “My younger brother Gary is an accountant,” says Lips. “As much as he would like to think he has been a positive force in my life, he hasn’t been. He owns a number of properties and he’s been bothering me for years to help him run them, and I’ve been saying ‘No, I’m in this’. And it wasn’t until he saw the film that he came to realise who his brother really is. Now he’s calling me every day, hyping me up. It’s extraordinary. And I don’t feel resentful about him not believing in me before – he just didn’t see it. And how could I explain it to him? It’s something you have to see. Once he saw it, he understood that I’d made the decision as a kid that I wasn’t going to do anything else with my life.”

First and foremost, however, Anvil! The Story of Anvil has reignited the long-dormant interest from metal fans and the music industry in Anvil. There’s been renewed interest in the band’s 13-album back catalogue. They’re supporting AC/DC on an upcoming tour. Audiences of all ages and musical inclinations are attending their shows, not to mention screenings of the movie.

“We opened the film festival in Toronto, played at this beautiful historical theatre, and it was sold out,” says Rebecca Yeldham, the film’s Australian producer. “The audience was this combination of movie-loving hipsters, elderly Jewish people and metal fans, all assembled in this beautiful theatre. And Anvil came up on stage at the end and 1100 people stood up and cheered them. Tears were streaming down their faces because they’d never had that kind of recognition and celebration in their home country. When you look at everyone’s journey through their various careers, you have to remember that for 25, 30 years they were not only rejected but in some circles ridiculed and told they no longer had any worth. Canada in particular was very cruel. And yet they just kept slogging away. And not just slogging away – they believed.”

At this point, Gervasi, proud as a parent, pulled out his iPhone to show a snapshot he took of a recent Anvil show. It’s a picture of Robb holding his drumsticks aloft, standing before a massive, cheering crowd. “That’s 72,000 people,” he says with a grin. “It’s the biggest show they ever played. And that’s in Canada.”

“Life is very random in a lot of ways,” says Lips in conclusion. “You never know what’s going to happen. But we have one consistency – the band. ‘Hey, this is my buddy and we make great rock’n’roll! Let’s keep goin’!’ That we knew, and that’s the way it still is.”

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is in cinemas now.