The rock-doc Anvil! The Story Of Anvil has been touted as “a real life Spinal Tap,” following the misadventures of an obscure Canadian heavy-metal band as it stumbles haplessly through underattended tours, hanging onto dreams that should’ve died in the ’80s. Along the way, the band visits Stonehenge, suffers their tour manager’s ineptitude, and plays a packed gig in Tokyo. Anvil even has a drummer named Robb Reiner. The Spinal Tap echoes are spooky.
But while Anvil! is frequently funny, it’d be a mistake to call the band a joke. Reiner and singer-guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow have kept Anvil together for so long both because their music remains decent—maybe not as innovative in the early ’80s, but still spirited—and because they haven’t burned any bridges. Anvil has never had that big “last straw” moment. The band still has enough fans to make touring viable, and Kudlow is likeable enough to persuade people to help him out. Again and again in Anvil!, people come through for Kudlow: the producer the band worked with in their heyday, the older sister who loans him money, and so on. Director Sacha Gervasi—a former Anvil roadie turned Hollywood player—glosses over any mistakes Kudlow and company may have made 30 years ago, but he does show what it takes to play dingy Canadian and European clubs for crowds of dozens, year after year.
Within the portrait of Anvil’s endurance, we also see why they never made it huge: The band is too nice. The movie’s most significant relationship is between Kudlow and Reiner, who bicker like brothers and bond like soldiers. Reiner loves Kudlow too much to abandon him, even though both of them could’ve given up Anvil and become successes elsewhere long ago. Kudlow’s messianic fervor can be hard to live with, but he makes a valid point when he suggests that it would cheapen his life’s work if he quit before he gave it his all. Yet in his despair, there’s something Kudlow misses, and it’s what makes Anvil! as moving as it is hilarious. If adult life is about working hard so we can afford to do what we want, then what’s the word for a group of musicians who’ve toured the world for three decades, making music for appreciative fans? Maybe… “success”?