Monday, May 4, 2009

New Doc Has Heart of Metal

By Mike Gillis

There was a time when I had no trouble distinguishing Stryper from Slayer or Metallica from Megadeth. The real challenge was often telling those bands apart at first sight. Obscured as they were under cloaks of teased hair, shredded Spandex or leather and chains, I remember being able to pop on the headphones and quickly peg the music that made the best of those bands unique.

My fascination with metal music rapidly waned but many of the bands that were virtual unknowns or small-scale successes became mainstream commercial successes or carved out lucrative new genres: glam rock, thrash metal and even rap metal. The Scorpions, Metallica and Anthrax were among the bands that enjoyed robust record sales and a growing fan base well into the 1990s or still do today.

So when "This is Spinal Tap" appeared in 1984, and after having witnessed what I thought was the implosion of a genre, I was able to consider with laughter my own musical misfortune as a child of metal.

Then, this week, I see "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," which is out in theaters now and find myself longing for my old three-quarter-sleeve, heavy metal concert shirts.

Well, not longing, really. But I'd be hard pressed to push a better rock and roll documentary in recent years, if ever. It's that good.

Canadian metal band Anvil surfed the first wave of riff-heavy thrash rock, churning out loud anthems to youth, vice and bubble gum occultism with the best of them. They toured the world and helped fill sports stadiums. They appeared on talk shows and made the cover of metal magazines. Then, as quickly as their fire ignited, Anvil was snuffed out.

It was not unusual for metal bands to spiral downward into bargain bins and obscurity, particularly in the 1990s when the patriarchs were put to pasture. But Anvil is still considered to be a band that kick-started the modern metal movement and influenced some of the biggest names in the industry.

Whatever. I know. Who cares if you're not a metal fan or swept up by misplaced nostalgia?

That's what makes "Anvil: The Story of Anvil" a real gem of a movie. It's not about a metal band that missed the boat. Yes, that's part of this story: The film begins with Anvil, more than 25 years after its 15 minutes, trekking across Europe on a poorly managed, little attended tour in a desperate attempt to resurrect the glory days of 1982.

More than that, this is a story of perseverance -- blind, sad, comical, honest and poignant perseverance -- that finds two men in their 50s unwilling to give up a dream forged as two teenagers. Those two men, Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (same name as "Spinal Tap" director Rob Reiner, ironically) have carried on as Anvil for almost 30 years, recording more than a dozen albums, and pressing on under a shadow of obscurity in the name of "art."

The "art" in this story may be subjective, but what art isn't? The wounds, the slights, the neglect and the loneliness are real here, but so are the heartbreaking and heart-warming moments. Here are two men with families and children and day jobs, long after fame, still looking for the grace note to a career -- with raw grace.

See the movie and judge yourself whether they find it.

Forget Mickey Rourke and "The Wrestler." This is the real deal.

Perhaps "Lips" says it best in a recent interview with Rolling Stone:

"People go, 'Wow, man, 30 years. You guys didn't make millions of dollars, why did you just stay together?'" Lips says. "What, you have to make millions of dollars to have enjoyment in your life? What's wrong with people? It's not that I'm crazy, I think the rest of the world is crazy.
If everything was motivated strictly by cash, we would have never gone to the moon. We'd still be living in caves!"

See the trailer for "Anvil" here: