You wouldn't know it from Wednesday, but there's still a full week left of the South By Southwest Film Festival. The music side of the program opens up tonight, which means that by the time I sputter into town, the streets are already filled with ironic t-shirts, outsized specs, and people perplexingly desperate to see the Decemberists. Oh, how well I remember those days, when I myself was known to stay up past 10PM! Of course, I am older now, and wiser too, and I have realized two things: (1) there are precious few bands whose music is more appealing than sleep, and (2) no one is paying me to go see rock shows at this year's SxSW. So movies it is: while Sean, Josh, Kyle and the boys are off doing their musical thang-thang, I'll still be holed up in dark theaters, getting paler and sleepier. In a transparently desperate attempt to hang on to my scenester credibility, however, I decide to make tonight's viewings two movies that deal explicitly with the world of rock 'n' roll, in all its sleazy glory.
Although it's been on the festival circuit for a while now, and garnered tons of positive reviews, I have to admit that I'm pretty nervous when I check into the Alamo Ritz for a viewing of Anvil! The Story of Anvil. As a genuine metal fan, I'm extremely leery that the story of a never-was Canadian thrash outfit, still playing the headbanging game well into their fifties despite a lifetime of commercial non-success, will be patronizing, jokey, and condescending to the whole genre. This fear is hardly alleviated by the gag title and the near-constant references, in reviews and official press alike, to This is Spinal Tap (a comparison, it must be admitted, that is hard to avoid, given certain scenes in the movie, and the fact that Anvil's drummer is named Robb Reiner). Metal is already used far too often as a cheap musical punchline, and the last thing I want to see is a documentary that treats its subjects as a joke just by virtue of the music they play.
As it turns out, I have nothing to worry about. While Anvil! isn't devoid of humor by any means, and while it does inevitably toss out a few laughs at the band's expense, it's not laughing at them or laughing with them. What it's really doing is making you think: not about metal — which is, understandably, not really what the film is about — but about the sacrifices that people are willing to make to pursue their dreams, whatever those dreams happen to be, and however many roadblocks life throws in front of them. If there's a joke in the story, it's the one fate plays on them for no particular reason. Spinal Tap was funny because they were terrible: pretentious, self-deluding, marginally talented, and arrogant beyond their abilities. Conversely, Anvil — despite the praise heaped on them by a few big-shot ringers who testify to their greatness — aren't forgotten geniuses. But neither are they a "shit sandwich" a la Tap; there's really no particular reason that they didn't make it while a dozen other metal bands equally or even less talented did. The inability of Reiner and his musical partner Lips Kudrow to understand why fate has passed them by is the great comedy — and the great tragedy — of the film. There's no real reason they shouldn't be rewarded; there's also no real reason that they should. Their story is that of a million other bands, and that's what makes it so resonant.
Anvil would play perfectly on a double-bill with the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster; the latter film shows us a band that has reached unthinkable heights of success, and it's turned them into petty, unmanagable, petulant whiners. The former shows us a band that features two middle-aged working stiffs who travel all the way to Easter Europe to play a show in front of 150 people, and still keep going forward every single day. There's a lot to recommend the film on technical merits, too; director Sacha Gervasi — a successful screenwriter in another life — does a fine job of editing old footage with contemporary interviews, has an exciting sense of pace, and lets his material open up to include the perspective of family and friends as well as fans and industry people. Who knows if Anvil! will do anything for the band's career, but as a document of their perseverance, it's certainly something they should be as proud of as any of their albums.
Another documentary soaked in the beery, living-on-the-edges world of workaday rock 'n' roll is Canadian filmmaker Eileen Yaghoobian's Died Young Stayed Pretty. An ambitious film that spans several decades and took four years to complete, it attempts to encapsulate the dynamic, ephemeral and often-contradictory world of the live show poster, where visual artists pour their often-substantial creative gifts into advertising a one-time even that will take no longer than a few hours and be forgotten almost as soon as it happens. Unsurprisingly, the film is a pleasure to listen to; its soundtrack is a jumping compilation of some of the best contemporary bands on the continent, providing a perfect musical accompaniement to the flickering images of street art that accompnay their shows.
Unfortunately, as an actual movie, Died Young Stayed Pretty is a great record album. It looks good, to a certain degree — after all, this is a movie about visual art, and some of the artists who make it are undeniably talented — but the images are curiously static. They're meant to be seen in person, on the walls of a club with the music blaring or on a telephone pole before the cops rip it down or even in an art museum, with the songs coming out the tinny speakers of a rent-a-tour. They're not meant to be seen in the rapid-fire medium of motion pictures, which gives you no chance to savor them, to observe them in context, to let the memories of what the represent blend with the experience of seeing them. Yaghoobian tries to meet the challenge of portraying a static visual medium on film, but she's defeated by the very nature of her subject: there is simply such a vast body of work on display, even considering how much she must have pared it down, that you don't really get a sense of any of it: it's just a towering mass of material that flits past in the blink of an eye.
The rest of the film has similar problems. It hops from scene to scene, city to city, situation to situation, fan to artist to band to club owner, so quickly that we rarely get a real grasp on anything; the key to a documentary like this is extreme selectivity, and while Yaghoobian does focus on a couple of poster artists like Tom Hazelmyer and Art Charney, there's still too much coming and going to get the sense of a unified perspective that holds such efforts together. (Even when she does focus on one voice, it's not always a plus; Charney, in particular, comes off as a loudmouthed creep who hates just about everything except himself, a self-righteous, punker-than-thou blowhard for whose nebulous revolution no one is good enough.) Its free-form editing and all-over-the-place pacing is meant to conjure the freedom of rock 'n' roll, but instead comes off as confusing and (deliberately?) alienating. This might make a terrific art exhibit, where one could appreciate the ingenuity, craftsmanship and daring of the work without having its creators spout rebel cliches in your ear; as a movie, it just doesn't work.
Well, it's time for me to end the evening the way all true rock and rollers do: a careful, sober drive back down the I-35, a glass of hot tea with honey and lemon, and 12 hours of sleep. Later, I'll meet up with the rest of the AV Club crew, and explain patiently to their attentive ears how things used to be back in my day. Rock on completely, and I'll see you tomorrow!