If I tell you that one of the best movies in 2009 was a documentary that followed a couple of 50-year-old heavy metal musicians from Canada on a depressing, poorly attended European tour, your first reaction might be to write this off to Proyect’s idiosyncratic tastes. But I am not the only one that feels this way. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote:
The most stirring release of the year thus far is a documentary. No surprise in that, given the current state of feature films, or in the fact that “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is a documentary about a heavy-metal band. But this film is about a failed heavy-metal band, which sounds about as purposeful as a vegan shark.
If this documentary sounds a bit like the mockumentary “Spinal Tap” at first blush, that perception is only heightened when you discover that the drummer is named Robb Reiner, separated by only one letter from “Spinal Tap” director Rob Reiner. Even though there are a number of funny scenes in “Anvil”, the name of the film taken from the band’s name, this is not a comedy. It is about the Quixotic attempt of drummer Reiner and lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow to make it big in the world of arena rock.
It is not as if they are coming totally out of left field. The movie begins with a number of the top names in heavy metal paying tribute to Anvil, who started playing in 1978 and were considered a seminal band. Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, says that without Anvil there would be no Metallica.
The movie begins with “Lips” Kudlow on his day job delivering food for a school lunch program. We also see Reiner breaking up concrete slabs with a jackhammer. He supports himself through two gigs, as a housing contractor and as a jeweler. He picked up the latter trade from his father, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz. Both of these men come out of the small, immigrant Jewish community in Toronto and live there as solid citizens with families, even if their appearance sets them apart. “Lips” has stringy long hair down to his shoulders, but you cannot miss the bald spot at the top of his head. Reiner always has a cap on his head, like Carlos Santana. We surmise that it is to cover a bald spot as well, in both cases.
The two men are quite candid about their situation. They know that they are competing in a young man’s world. They recognize that age is creeping up on them, if not having already cast them aside. But they still think of themselves as they were in their twenties, playing before thousands of adoring, head banging teenagers. We see concert footage from the 80s, with “Lips” wearing an S&M harness over a bare chest and playing his guitar with a dildo. Their only goal in life is to play before such audiences once again and to make a hit record. They did make a dozen records during their prime but none of them sold very well. Their obscurity is more a function of poor management than a lack of talent.
You find yourself identifying deeply with these two unlikely characters because of their idealism. They believe in their art and nothing else will satisfy them. If bourgeois society is mostly about succumbing to market forces, these two middle-aged Jews are testimony to the power of art, which alongside politics is the only way of expressing one’s individuality in a mammon-worshipping society.
Sacha Gervasi, a British citizen who had been a teen fan of the band in the early 80s, directed the movie. He is best known for his screenwriting work, including Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 “The Terminal”. Unlike most screenwriters who come out of television or film school, Gervasi had an academic background. He majored in history at King’s College and then became an assistant to Britain’s poet laureate Ted Hughes. Afterwards, he worked on the Samuel Beckett archives. So, despite being an Anvil fan, he was not the typical beer-guzzling metalhead. Of even greater interest to me is the fact that he is the son of the late Sean Gervasi, the author of one the most important anti-imperialist analyses of the Balkans War to this date.
Their story resonated with me on a couple of levels. In 1967 I was working for the welfare department in New York when I received the case of Jonathan Jones Jr., a jazz drummer who had just come out of a drug rehab program and who was the son of the legendary jazz drummer in Count Basie’s band, Jo Jones. I got his drums out of hock and began to attend gigs, which were generally as poorly attended as those of Anvil’s on their misbegotten European tour. One night Jonathan told me that he booked a gig in Newark at a bar owned and generally populated by mafia gangsters, all of whom apparently dug jazz. The piano player working with him that night was none other than Duke Jordan, who used to play with Charlie Parker in the 1940s and 50s and who wrote the standard “Jordu”. During a break, I asked Jonathan what Duke was doing besides playing jazz. He told me that he drove a school bus in Brooklyn since there was no way to make a proper living as a jazz musician unless you were in the very top ranks. While I don’t consider Anvil to be in the same league as Duke Jordan, all of these musicians believed in their art and would do anything to further its cause.
I also could not help but feel a certain affinity with the two musicians who insisted on staying true to their youthful idealism despite looking a bit foolish in the process. A bit younger than me, they came out of the same cultural cauldron for when you stop and think about it the 1960s was responsible for my outlandish Marxist beliefs and their “outlaw” music. Like them, I will continue on my Quixotic way since the thought of blending in with mainstream society is too scary and depressing to consider.