Heavy Metal Cinema

Rock band Anvil tell us what it was like to star in their own documentary.

by Jennie Kermode

Anvil: Live in Action (all photos by Stuart Crawford)

Anvil: Live in Action (all photos by Stuart Crawford)

Sometimes life is just not fair. Despite a 35-year career and despite providing inspiration to massively successful bands such as Metallica, Anvil have remained almost entirely unknown outside of their hardcore following of fans. Yet they have never given up, and with the arrival of the documentary Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, made by their old friend Sacha Gervasi, it looks as if things might finally be turning around for them. I caught up with the band in a dark corner of a bar in Glasgow to ask how they felt about making a guest appearance at this year's Glasgow Film Festival.

"It's magic!" declares singer Steve 'Lips' Kudlow in his best Scottish accent (which, it has to be said, is better than many one hears in the movies).

"It's good," drummer Robb Reiner agrees. "We've done quite a lot of these festival things now, but we've not been to Scotland for many years, so that's nice. We're here to present The Anvil Experience, the movie and the band together. We've done a dozen or so of these shows now."

"This might be the first time we're doing it in a multiplex," adds G5, the bassist, who is reclining to one side of the table, looking like he hasn't slept properly in too long.

I ask them how they feel about being famous among new fans because of the documentary, and they laugh.

"We don't know because we're not film stars yet," says Lips.

Robb is modest about it. "We're not really film stars, we're just rock musicians who got a movie made about them. It was great making it, though. It was fantastic, a really good experience. There was an incredible level of trust because we've known Sacha since the early Eighties. When your best friend is sitting at the table with a camera at the side and you're having a conversation, and he's the guy that has to decide whether he's going to use it or not, you trust him. It doesn't matter what you're talking about."

Sacha is sitting beside us. He's been busily involved in a text message exchange with his mum, but now he's looking up and paying attention. What prompted him to make the documentary, I ask.

He grins. "Ah, well, I just love the band! I was really into them when I was a kid, and I met them and I went on tour with them. And they welcomed me into their metal bosom."

Everybody laughs at Sacha's new favourite phrase.

"They were just cool," he continues, blushing. "I was a 15-year-old crazy kid, obsessed with heavy metal, and they said 'Hey, come on the road with us.' Robb said 'Be my drum roadie and I'll show you shit that you'll never figure out how to play.' And basically I used to sit by his kit every night and I couldn't understand what he was doing, and he loved the fact that I idolised him. I was a sort of special worshipper. And so I was happy to be a sort of metal cheerleader."

"He was just a cute kid who was really enthusiastic and talked at a million miles an hour," says Lips. "He got excited about anything and everything and we had a great time just taking the piss out of him. He was the kid that you could radge."

"And I was happy to be radged," says Sacha. "So the thing was I then hung out with them for a while during the Eighties and then lost touch with them for 20 years. No contact. I didn't know what had happened to Anvil, didn't understand why they hadn't made it and all the bands they'd influenced had. And so one night in August of 2005 I went online looking for them, and I found their website and they'd never stopped! And I'd never heard all these records. And I saw photos from a recent show and it didn't look like it was a very big show, like maybe there were 11 people there. And I thought that was crazy.

"So what happened was, I wrote to the website and within a very short period of time I got a response from Lips, and he referred to me by my Anvil name 'Tea Bag', and he said 'Tea Bag, what the fuck happened to you? We thought you died or became a lawyer.' And I said that both were true at different times. And he emailed me his phone number and we started talking and I asked what he'd been doing and he said 'Well, we never quit.' It was a great catch-up.

"I flew out to LA that weekend so we could catch up properly. At that stage I wasn't intending to make a movie, you know? I just wanted to hang out with my old friends. And then I had the idea that we could do a film about these guys who'd never given up. I thought it was amazing that after 25 years they were still going, when everyone they'd influenced had become mega. They'd been left behind in the dust, yet they still believed it was going to happen for them. I thought that was the definition of magical thinking. Wondrous and also insane.

"So I flew to Toronto," he continues, "and met with Rebecca, the producer, and she was really taken with the story. And when I could explain the story to someone who hated heavy metal I knew I might be onto something good. So we made the film. We started shooting that November, we shot for over two and a half years, edited for a year. The film got into Sundance. There was a standing ovation at every single show. It was mental. And it hasn't stopped."

I ask if they're hoping that the film will help with their career, and Robb nods enthusiastically. "It already has."

"The world is looking at us again,"says Lips. "We're going to play Donnington again." And he's pretty sure about why. "Generally speaking, people like to see justice prevail. When you've worked hard, people want to see you get what you deserve. No-one wants to see you work for nothing - people like to see the underdog win. This is the reality of the situation. We're the Rocky Balboa of heavy metal."

So are their old fans now coming out of the woodwork and rediscovering them? G5 is pleased by my choice of words. "We call those fans woodworkers," he says. "The die-hards. They love this."

"What makes Anvil different from most other bands," says Lips, "Is that we never stopped. It's not like we got into our fifties and said" - here he adopts his best old codger voice - "'hey guys, let's put the band back together!'"

"The woodworkers know that," says G5, "and they're been there all along."

"That's how we've survived," Lips continues. "They buy the records and that pays for the next record. You have to have something there as a reason to continue, and we always have."

"We kept going because we had something to offer," Rob adds."

"It's the journey that counts," says Lips. "And you know what? If it never happened, I'd still have had one hell of a great life trying to make it. It's not whether you win or lose - it's the game."

I ask Sacha what he was hoping to achieve with the film. "I was hoping to make a really genre-defining rockumentary, like something that was like a rockumentary but more. And I think I have. It feels like it's not a 'behind the music' or a 'this is the story of this band' where they all meet and they're friends and they write a brilliant album and then they all take a load of drugs and break up, you know, and one of them releases a folk album, and then they make up and there's a tearful reunion, and someone's dog dies... I just thought that this is sort of taking the rock doc and turning it into a normal film about perseverance and family. That was my first ambition - to break out of the usual format - and my second ambition was to see this great band get the credit they deserved.

"The film's success is already far in excess of what I'd hoped. I thought that me and my producer and our friends and the band would enjoy the film, and I felt proud of it, but I didn't understand how important it was. I feel really lucky."

So did he try to develop the film in a style that went with the band? He shakes his head. "I think the best films come from instinct. They're not cerebral. I was just totally open - I allowed my own personal feelings and the feelings of the guys to lead the story."

How about the band themselves - did they have much creative control over the development of the film?

"G5 and I watched it superficially, but Lips was part of the whole process," says Robb.

Lips laughs. "The only thing I'm still uncomfortable with is the naked picture. But it's quite symbolic because I've bared my soul so what's the difference if everybody sees my body?" He puts on a macho voice: "I'm a real man, so I've got nothing to be ashamed of! Oh, is that milk?"

We look across the table. Tea has arrived. Sacha offers me sugar and looks concerned when I decline, as if I'm doing so out of politeness. He requests extra sugar from the waitress as the band sip from the dainty white china. I decide that the time has come to broach the inevitable Spinal Tap question.

"What is that film?" asks Sacha, his eyes widening. "I've never heard of it!"

"It was Marty DiBergi's first film," G5 puts in helpfully, as Lips suggests that Spinal Tap might be a good name for a band.

"It's all good with us," says Robb.

Lips nods. "As soon as you say you're going to make a documentary about a rock band, it's immediately going to be compared to the almighty Spinal Tap. So what's brilliant about this is you don't go against it - just go with it. Spinal Tap was made to be as realistic as possible and that's what we find so amusing about it."

I suggest that outsiders don't always see the humour within rock culture - there's clearly plenty of humour amongst the members of Anvil.

"There's all emotions," says Lips. "It's not just one aspect. Music is emotion. The better the band is, the more emotions we can derive from their music as well as their personalities. So what we've done here - in my opinion - is spectacular. When you see somebody crying and saying 'I love you' in this film, they're not saying it because it's written on a piece of paper, they're saying it because it's coming from top left." He thumps his heart. "We had all these things happening, we had emotional breakdowns, and our friend was sitting there - so what? I'm not embarrassed to have a fight with Robb in front of Sacha. I figured he wouldn't show that kind of thing anyway."

"Wrong," says Sacha.

They laugh. "But thank goodness it was there, and we weren't intimidated," Lips continues. "The more we let down our guard, the better the result. What has happened here is a phenomenon. Think of the odds against something like this happening. First of all, our friendship is a rarity in itself - it's lasted a lot longer than most people's marriages do. Then meeting Sacha - we didn't just think of him as a kid, he was a fan, he was our audience, what we strive to impress. Being friends with Sacha was more important than being friends with the guys in Def Leppard because those guys aren't going to buy our records and probably couldn't give a shit what we put on them. Then there was our career - okay, we had a high point, we went down, but we never lost our faith and belief in ourselves. And Sacha came back and wanted to make a movie about us. The odds of this happening are billions to one. This is a very special moment in time and history. It's like going back to when Van Gogh was painting and seeing his struggle. But here, somebody has intervened in an injustice and sorted it out."

"The other thing that's really special about this movie," says Robb, "Is that the audience will determine the real ending."

Sacha nods. "It's happening right now. If the audience decide that they like Anvil and they're going to buy their records, they could change their lives."

If that happens, will there be a sequel to the film?

"It's certainly looking that way," says Lips. "You'd want to know, right? I think it would be great to be able to show people what the movie did. Sort of like an epilogue - but we'll see."

On that note, I decide it's time to enquire about their next album.

"The next album is called Juggernaut Of Justice," says Robb, completely deadpan, ignoring Sacha's laughter. "It's all written now, we just need to finish recording. We've got good management at last - the best in the business - and we're ready for the future. We just wanna rock."

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