Monday, March 01, 2010

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentaries / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 15 of 100

I’ve never had much time for that old saw about whether the glass is half empty or half full. The answer is so self-evident it amazes me the question still gets asked. If the glass was empty to begin with and then had water/fruit juice/alcoholic substances [delete as applicable] decanted into it up to the half way mark, then it’s half full. If the glass was full to begin with and then half its contents were drunk/spilled/evaporated [delete as applicable], then it’s half empty. End of fucking story.

But wait, you say. The question is hypothetical. It’s designed to test perception, to determine whether one has an optimistic or a cynical outlook. To which I say: that’s as may be, but it’s still a stupid question. As stupid as that one about whether a tree falling in a wood makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it. Of course it does. It’s a fucking tree. Falling. The bastard’s going to make one hell of a racket.

And besides, the half full/half empty glass question has now been made redundant. Here’s a new perceptional test: is ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ a testament to the power of dreams and never giving up, or is it a study of terminally delusional behaviour?

Much of the blogosphere (as well as a goodly number of film magazines) favours the former, finding in Sacha Gervasi’s documentary a poignant, affectionate and affirming portrait of friendship, self-belief and against-the-odds staying power. All of which is undeniably evident, but I’ve watched the film twice now and, beyond the easy laughs (Gervasi, realising he has a real-life ‘This is Spinal Tap’ for a subject, slyly evokes any number of Tap-isms), I can’t help but find it hopelessly sad and pathetic in places.

Singer and founder member Steve “Lips” Kudrow’s unflagging commitment to the band, never mind that a brief meteoric burst of success in the early ’80s which saw them playing to huge stadium crowds (granted, mainly in Japan) reduced – over the next two decades – to venues of a significantly smaller calibre, is the chief reason for the all “power of dreams”/”never give up” encomium. Fair enough, but hearing him talk about the band as the thing that keeps him going or telling guitarist and co-founder Robb Reiner he’s “the closest person I’ve got in the world” when the man barely acknowledges his wife just doesn’t sit well with me.

Nor is his unflagging commitment always buoyed up by unflappable optimism. There is frequently a palpable sense of despair over him. He comes close to trading blows with a Czechoslovakian club owner who threatens to withhold payment. A potential brawl erupts between him and Reiner. As often as he extols the band’s longevity, he complains that it’s eternally down to him to hold things together. Notwithstanding the semi-happy ending (a gig at a rock festival in Japan where they wow the crowds), ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ contains more than its fair share of moments so squirmily embarrassing you’re almost willing them to call it a day; put themselves out of their misery; pay a little more attention to their wives.

Perhaps the most incisive scene has Reiner’s sister (the interestingly named Droid) and his wife Jane jointly interviewed. Droid is brutally straightforward in her assessment of where Anvil are at: “He [Reiner] has got a son, he’s got a wife, he’s got two stepdaughters, he’s got a mortgage … Anvil, they tour but they don’t make a lot of money and he’s basically telling me it’s got to happen or I’m done.” Jane adds: “I’ve been very patient as a wife. How long do I have to keep waiting?”

The movie’s tagline has it that Kudrow and Reiner, at fourteen, “made a pact to rock together forever. They meant it.” Which is fine for a couple of teenagers; even for two guys in their twenties with no responsibilities. But Kudrow and Reiner are a lot further down the line and life has freighted them with responsibilities beyond the band. Yet the band – certainly for Kudrow, who demonstrates a frightening degree of tunnel vision – is the be all and end all.

Yes, ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ is often funny – the attempts of well-meaning but borderline incompetent would-be manager Tiziana Arrigoni to orchestrate a European tour are jaw-droppingly hilarious – and despite a plethora of embarrassing moments, the film achieves an engagement of even the most cynical viewer (in this case, yours truly) guaranteed to have you cheering for Anvil when they take the stage for the final cathartic concert in Japan. But it’s a sense of sadness that stays with me; a tinge of melancholy that’s all the more disconcerting because so much of its context provokes laughter.


Unknown said...

Sadness is certainly a significant component to this documentary and is there is show just one other hurdle these guys had to get over in order to realize their dreams. I think that whether knowingly or not, this doc. says that in order to realize the kind of dreams that these guys are after, you have to have a single-minded determination and an almost obsessive drive to make it, esp. the genre of heavy metal music which has always been regarded as an unimportant, juvenile genre of music and relegated to the margins.

I do agree that the ignoring of their spouses is problematic but that may have also been due to the editing job by the filmmakers, omitting most of the footage with them (obviously, Lips and Robb are the focal points for this thing) but as you point out, when the women are interviewed they don't hold back and speak honestly.

Still, I thought that this was a great doc. and being from Canada it was great to see these guys get some much deserved props and recognition. And, thanks to the success of this film, these guys finally have their happy ending.

Aaron said...

I didn't love it as much as a lot of other people did (I certainly wouldn't put it in my top ten of last year, nor would I call it one of the best documentaries I've ever seen), but I still enjoyed it. And it's interesting that you basically point out the fact that we're laughing at them instead of with them, because I really don't think that was the point of the doc. I found the singer to be quite annoying after a while, but for the most part I enjoyed ANVIL and found some of the stuff interesting. But don't be too sad, though, because these guys are playing some pretty big gigs nowadays from what I understand! Despite whether they were being exploited or not, they're the ones who are having the last laugh.

Neil Fulwood said...

J.D. - good call about the tendency to subjective editing. Particularly evident in the cut from Lips enthusing about sending the album 'This is Thirteen' out to record companies to a shot of him, two weeks later, standing forlornly in an overgrown backyard ruminating on the total non-response. There seem to be a lot of moments like this in the film, very heavily juxtaposing Lips's pie-in-the-sky optimism with the less-than-glorious reality of things.

Aaron - glad I'm not the only person to find 'Anvil' slightly overrated (it did clog up a hell of a lot of top ten lists). Like you, I found Lips an often annoying individual despite his passion and commitment. But still, as you say, Anvil got what they wanted out of the documentary; it put them back in the public eye and they're getting the gigs. Now all I need is a film crew to follow me around and document my quest to be a bestselling and stupidly overpaid novelist ...

Troy Olson said...

Well, I'll be...someone else who saw this the same way I did.

Like you, every review I read held this film up as some sort of triumph of the human spirit. While I'm all for trying to live out your dreams, doing it the detriment of those who rely on you seems to be selfish, not valiant.

The editing manipulation actually irks me quite a bit -- that final concert took place before they made the new album, which grossly misrepresents things.

But the strangest thing for me was the claims of greatest documentary ever or even a top 10 film of the year. Documentaries are so varied that I guess there's different ones for different people, but even comparing this to KING OF KONG, let alone an Errol Morris or Werner Herzog doc, seems a bit off.

And so I don't come off like a complete asshole, hooray for Anvil for making some money out of this whole endeavor.