Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

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.

7 Comments »

  1. ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’ is a fantastic film. And anyone who saw it and was rooting for the band to finally realize their dreams of doing a tour where they get to play to large audiences every night will be happy to know that Angus Young, the guitarist of AC/DC, saw the film, called up Anvil, and invited them on the road with him. So Anvil is currently on tour sharing the bill with AC/DC.
    Louis, you say:
    “So, despite being an Anvil fan, he was not the typical beer-guzzling metalhead.”
    Through my teens, many of my friends and I were metalheads and, in addition to more than our fair share of beer-guzzling and countless other substance ingesting, many of us were quite bookish and some even nerdy you might say. And, although there is a large share of the metal scene and culture that is made up of brain dead BeavisandButtheadism, and sexist, macho, even right wing and fascistic idiocy that can often manage to be incredibly homo-erotic and pathologically anti-gay and homphobic at the same time, there’s also a deep current that is quite left wing and intelligent in its own way. For example, see a transcript of a talk I had a few years back with the vocalist of the several decades-old British band Napalm Death: http://demleft.blogspot.com/2005/04/interview-with-barney-greenway-of.html In fact, in the 1990s, there was a relatively big heavy metal magazine, ‘Metal Maniacs’, which focused on death metal and black metal, which had an editor who was into featuring antiwar, feminist, animal liberation, and just general sort of left wing ideas.

    Comment by tim — November 14, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  2. Tim, thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 14, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  3. Tim’s definitely right about a considerable left wing of Metal fans, and more importantly, unlike many of the erstwhile Marxists on the left (lots of whom post here) — virtually zero of them would ever cast a vote for one of the 2 capitalist parties such as that which elected Obama. Their general sense of what’s going on (like a lot of young people) is some kind of odious N.W.O. constructed primarily on behalf of hideous multinational corporations which leads them more to punk-like Anarchist conclusions, typically healthy conclusions at that, except, of course when it comes to organizing a fightback against this formidable juggernaut.

    Interestingly, this entire Anvil trailer was played last night as a commercial on VH1c (classic video hits) channel.

    Not being a fan of the genre myself I confess I allowed a friend that subscribes to a news group download me a copy which I’ll be watching tonight.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 15, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  4. Anvil is a great movie. It really was touching (SPOILER ALERT) their reception in Japan.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — November 16, 2009 @ 3:53 am

  5. One of the best things about growing up in the Midwest USA in the sixties, and maturing in the Seventies, was that I got to miss the entire “disillusionment of the sixties generation” thing, such that, when I became a Marxist in the mid nineties, I didn’t “know” that Marxism was an “outlandish belief system”. I now figure it’s just the way things really are when you grow up and “put away childish things” (see, growing up in a Christian faith was good for something!).

    Comment by kimchinam58 — November 16, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  6. In the movie, Lips said that 99.9% of musicians don’t get paid. Was he exaggerating? I hope so…

    Comment by Mark — November 17, 2009 @ 3:24 am

  7. Lou, thanks for thus review. I loved this film. As you suggested, I was lead to expect something like “Spinal Tap” — if not an outright parody then something mocking in tone. Let’s face it, the metal scene is easy to make fun of and the opening scenes of Lips playing “Metal on Metal” with harness and dildo only added to that expectation. That only added to the poignancy of this film as it fast forwards and begins to unflinchingly reveal the two real men who, at late middle age, are now poised on the precipice of insolvency and despair. The story of how they persisted, against all odds, to have their music heard and finally recognized, really moved me deeply. One of the most moving parts of the film comes when Rob begins to falter and lose hope and Lips rages at him for disloyalty but then relents and tenderly reeks his friend back in. This is also a true life buddy film of deep and abiding male friendship.

    Comment by DickO — November 20, 2009 @ 9:50 pm


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