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Film Review: Anvil

Posted by anandrr on May 11, 2009

I watched Anvil over the weekend. Going into the movie, I had not heard about the rock band, and had no idea what the movie was about. Only the sub-head on the marquee gave me any idea what I was getting into. “This is not Spinal Tap,” it read. But as the movie opened to shots from a rock festival held in Tokyo in the mid-80s where the performers included the Scorpions, Metallica and Anthrax all of whom went on to sell millions of records and also Anvil which went on to oblivion, and then moved to interviews with Lars Ulrich from Metallica telling us how the sound of Anvil was the best sound he’d ever heard and Slash telling us that Anvil practically invented metal, it was hard not to imagine that far from not being Spinal Tap, I had indeed walked into a This is Spinal Tap tribute, another mockumentary only this time the band recedes into oblivion instead of making it big. It only gets worse from here: the drummer is called Robb Reiner, and the equipment that their album is being recorded on has dials that go to eleven. Could I be faulted for thinking that this was not a documentary but a work of fiction?

The story picks up in the present where the principals behind Anvil, Robb Reiner and the lead singer Lips Kudlow (both Canadian Jews one of them with an Auschwitz history concerning his grandfather), are consigned to the dustbin of metal history, both of them in their 50s, the former involved in manual labour of some kind with power tools, the latter a catering service delivery man. They have been together for 30+ years, and still meet to rock together. The documentary follows their story arc over the next few months, and the comparisons to Spinal Tap don’t end. The band goes on a tour of Europe, and their manager can never manage to book their tickets, or get to the railway station on time, or even get to the gig in time. On the tour, they play to a lone rocker sitting in a lazy-boy and banging his head, to a meager 170-odd audience in a venue that can hold a couple thousand, and wait eagerly back-stage to meet with Ted Nugent. Eventually the manager marries one of the band members (and we’re told at the end of the movie is now arranging a tour of the Scorpions and wishes to move on to the opera). But throughout, Kudlow stays optimistic. He throws out such Zen as, “at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on,” and, “at the end of the day after all has been said and done, I can say that all has been said and done.”

And it is that which makes Anvil so likeable and human. Both Reiner and Kudlow have been together for a long time. They agreed when they met as teenagers to keep rocking, and they do keep rocking. They are supported (financially and otherwise) by family most of whom also want them to finally make it big, they are devoted family men, sometimes rockers have to play badminton in the backyard with their little children too you know.

Sacha Gervasi who made the documentary has made a masterpiece of a documentary. You might go in not caring for rock or metal, you might even go in thinking Anvil is a poor poor band, in no way comparable to Slayer or Anthrax, or what have you, but even the most hard hearted person will melt a little by the end. As I read a little about Gervasi, it was quickly obvious where his empathy for the underdog comes from: Gervasi started his career as a musician, he founded a band with his friend, then left it because he thought they had no talent, his band then renamed itself to … Bush, he then became a screen writer and turned down a Warner Bros opportunity to adapt a screen play about a young wizard named … Harry Potter.

But in a real life documentary, there can be no redemption. Life sucks. And Anvil’s does too. The tour of Europe is a disaster. An album is recorded, nobody will distribute it, many days will be spent meeting with record execs and such, but a 50+ year old rocker is an old rocker, whichever way you cut it. The film reaches its slow climax when a tour opportunity arises in Japan butwhen they get to the Tokyo venue, the scene of their last big success 20+ years ago, their show is scheduled for 11:30 in the morning. Will anyone come to a metal show at 11:30 am? We know what the answer would have been if this were a Hollywood fantasy, but how will it play out in real life? We also know that Kudlow won’t much mind either way, but we want him to succeed, we want to will the Japanese to show up for their act.

And ultimately that is why this documentary wins. Two old rockers, their long hair barely covering their bald spots, leading sad lives, and yet continuing to live the dream, and as it happens, still making good music, and we care about them. We want the dream to succeed. This is probably the best documentary you will watch this year. Which means that with Kanchivaram earlier this year, I should probably stop watching movies altogether for the year.

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