There’s a scene in the classic-rock mock-umentary This is Spinal Tap that perfectly captures the pathos and accidental humor that is the life of a fading rock star. “Filmmaker” Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) asks guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) what he would do if he wasn’t in the band Spinal Tap. Tufnel suggests he might be a good shoe salesman. “Do you think you’d be happy doing that?” asks DiBergi. “Well, I don’t know,” ponders Tufnel, now taking the thought more seriously. “What are the hours?”
The documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens with long-forgotten footage of the real-life Canadian band Anvil rocking a giant crowd at an ’80s metal festival, followed by present-day testimonials from modern legends like Slash and Scott Ian discussing in all seriousness how influential and awe-inspiring this unknown group was at the time.
This is no mock-doc joke. Director Sacha Gervasi deftly introduces us to irrepressible frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow and his ever-suffering, lifelong sidekick Robb Reiner (seriously), who were and remain fine musicians who simply never quite caught on in the way their peers did. Now they toil the years away at blue-collar jobs, trying to support their families until they get a gig (or just get bit by the glory bug, which seems to happen a lot) and try to convince themselves that the next album, the next tour, the next anything might finally earn them they attention they believe they deserve.
As in Spinal Tap, there is heartbreak and inspiration amidst these scenes, especially when an overseas wannabe promoter emails them with ambitions of world dominance; the guys use up their vacation time from work to play for paltry audiences and venue owners who try to stiff them at every turn.
But in an age in which an entire music channel (VH-1) seems devoted to mining the melancholic depths of rock has-beens, the film has nowhere to go except to follow the band deeper into oblivion, until the final scene ends on a muted positive note: They’ve found a decent-sized audience in Asia, naturally. Gervasi’s and Anvil’s inability to conjure much of a triumph may be truthful, but it’s far from uplifting.
Ironically, Anvil’s actual happy ending is playing out in real time, as you read this. Anvil!, the film, has found a rapturous fan base among critics and audiences alike, earning major film festival awards in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Sydney, Australia. It was picked up for distribution by none other than VH-1 Rock Docs, sparking a massive new interest in the band and a feature in Rolling Stone. While this phenomenon imbues the documentary with pop-culture sheen, it doesn’t change the material, which for all its curiosities, is only par for the course.