December 16, 2011

Friday Review: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Progressive rock, it should come as a shock to nobody, is a seriously niche phenomenon. Aside from the 1970s pioneers and a few notable others, “underground” barely describes the scene’s profile. Albums are hard to find (if you don’t have a good source). Tours, at least in the States, are maddeningly short, if they happen at all. And, with few exceptions, the people making the music can’t make a living from it. So a lot of the artists I listen to on a regular basis do it because they love to make music. It’s a calling, not a career.

That knowledge added an extra layer of poignancy to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary of a Canadian heavy metal band that almost nobody has ever heard of. In fact, it’s a little hard to tell in the beginning whether it’s a real documentary or a modern take on Spinal Tap (indeed, the band’s drummer is even named Robb Reiner). But it’s real and the story it tells is both inspiring and pathetic in turns.

Anvil got its start in the late 1970s and, via its first few albums, got just to the edge of making it big. Enough that they were part of a big festival in Japan with a bunch of other rising bands you might have heard of – Scorpions, Bon Jovi, etc. For reasons that the film doesn’t really explore (one of its two major faults), the breakthrough never happened. The core of the band, drummer Reiner and vocalist/guitarist Lips (not his real name!), have nonetheless perservered through the years, banging away for a faithful, if small, following.

The movie shows the band going through a pair of painful musical adventures. One is a poorly organized European tour. After a festival gig in Sweden before a large and appreciative audience, the tour devolves into night after night of playing for a few dozen people in a tiny packed club. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’ve seen great shows in such places – but it’s not the kind of situation that suggests bigger things are right around the corner. That they don’t get paid for much of the tour (in spite of this, one of the other band members marries the Russian woman who ran the tour – he’s no longer with the band).

The other major music event is the recording of the band’s 13th studio album and their attempts to get it released with some kind of fanfare. They manage to get a respected producer to do the sessions (in England – they visit Stonehenge, thus making another Spinal Tap link), during which Lips and Reiner argue, break up, and then make up again. In the end, they release the album independently, selling directly to the fans (the album would be picked up by a label associated with VH1 when the movie came out).

Two things come through in these episodes. One is the indefatigable spirit of the band, and Lips in particular, to do what they regardless of how hard it is. Lips says at one point he’d play in front of a crowd of nobody, just because he gets off on the energy of playing that much. It may have been a rationalization (at one gig in Europe they played to less than 200 people in a huge gymnasium-type shed), but it sounded sincere. After all, if you really weren’t in it for the music, there’s no way you’d keep up with it year after year, right?

The other thing that comes through is little more depressing and, in touches, even a bit pathetic. Even after all these years in the metal wilderness and after railing about the inequities of the music business, Lips and Reiner appear to genuinely believe that breakthrough success is right around the corner. It’s like a gambler chasing the next big score, certain that the next time will really be different from all the others.

Fact is, rock stardom is a young man’s game. If you’ve made it to your forties and haven’t hit the big time yet, chances are it’s not going to happen. The impression I get from most of the proggers out there who struggle with day jobs is that, aside from a few eager young ‘uns, they know that they will never be a chart topping success playing to sold out arenas. And they’re all right with that. Sure, they want to make a living doing what they love rather than some other job, but who doesn’t? But I think most are happy when the music they love making connects with an audience, no matter how small.*

In end, it’s hard not to root for the guys in Anvil. They’re enthusiastic about their band and their music. Your heart definitely wants them to make it big. But your head knows better and hopes, one day, their heads will overtake their hearts, too. Then they can enjoy more what they’ve got, rather than pining for what they’ll never have.

* Of course, I could be full of shit.

The Details

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Released 2008
Directed by Sacha Gervasi

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