Nearly every hard rock or heavy metal group has been compared to Spinal Tap, but the comparison between Tap and Canadian metal veterans Anvil is extraordinary. The absorbing documentary Anvil! shows the group recording on equipment with knobs that go to 11, visiting Stonehenge, suffering from a string of scheduling and managerial screw-ups on tour, and playing before ever-dwindling crowds in smaller and smaller venues, long after their popularity peaked.
Well, at least the drummer stays safe. His name? Robb Reiner. I kid thee not.
Anvil! opens with testimonials from Slash, Lemmy and Lars Ulrich, longtime fans who say they can't understand why Anvil never became as successful as it deserved. They came close, performing with Whitesnake and Bon Jovi during a 1984 tour of Japan. After thirteen albums, however, founding members Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Reiner are still working blue-collar jobs in Toronto. But they just will not quit.
A European tour starts off promisingly enough, at a festival in metal-crazed Sweden. But before long, Anvil are getting lost and missing trains, getting stiffed by club managers, playing for minuscule crowds and huddling for warmth under blankets while being driven through Scandinavia in an old motor-home. The low point comes in Romania, where the band headlines a "Monsters of Transylvania" rock festival in a 10,000-seat arena. The paid attendance: 174.
Presumably, Anvil would have hung it up years ago if not for its devoted cult following and the glimmers of hope that occasionally reveal themselves. In a desperation move, the band sends a demo tape to veteran British rock producer Chris Tsangarides, who produced their most successful release, 1982's Metal on Metal. Surprisingly, Tsangarides likes what he hears, and invites them to his Dover studio to record the album This is Thirteen. Lips takes an ill-fated telemarketing job to raise the money, before a relative finally comes through.
I was one of these poseurs who thought Poison and Winger were heavy metal, so Anvil's music really isn't my thing. But these fifty-somethings still have the chops, and while I felt kind of sorry for Lips and Kudlow and their delusions of grandeur, part of me also believes these guys still have a shot at making it big. (Which they have, in a way – a VH1-sponsored "Anvil Experience," featuring a screening of the film followed by a concert, is selling out all over North America.)
Anvil! is touching and hilarious, and deserves to be seen by anyone who hung on to their old Judas Priest cassettes. It might not be This is Spinal Tap, but it's at least worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. Even the almighty Tap couldn't have come up with a song called "Thumb Hang," about a torture method used during the Spanish Inquisition.