One of the most talked about movies of the year is Sacha Gervasi’s heartwarming music documentary Anvil! The Story Of Anvil. While the words “heartwarming” and “heavy metal” don’t sound compatible, they lovingly embrace in Gervasi’s exploration of veteran Canadian headbangers Anvil, who have slogged away for over 30 years without getting their due. Until now. The documentary is a cult phenomenon that has attracted high profile fans like Chris Martin, John Mayer and Trent Reznor, and critics have universally acclaimed it as a must-see movie. And that is because of the endearing and enduring relationship between frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who have struggled to make it since the beginning.
I confess that the only Anvil album I’ve ever owned is Hard ‘N’ Heavy, the group’s over-the-top 1981 debut. As a testosterone-laden teenager, I enjoyed its raucous rumble of blues riffs, thrash intensity and dirty lyrics, but for some reason never scooped up Metal On Metal, Forged In Fire or their later releases. I certainly heard plenty of their tunes on local radio metalshops and through friends, but I was the kind of guy who sampled many different groups without often investing in full catalog purchases. Anvil should have received more attention for being part of the initial thrash movement that included the likes of Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica and Anthrax, but for some reason it didn’t happen.
When former Anvil roadie Gervasi decided to document two years of their lives, he was doing so out of admiration and awe, but his film has reached people beyond the metal community because of its compelling tale about hardship, struggle and faith. Even if you hate metal you’ll be touched by the movie. It’s the best gift the band could have gotten from a friend and fan. As the movie has grown in stature, Anvil have opened three stadium shows for AC/DC in the U.S. and Canada. Their latest album This Is Thirteen is being reissued on September on CD and vinyl (the latter with bonus tracks) through VH1 Classic Records, and they have become international celebrities. And Gervasi is still filming them even as he prepares to make an unrelated fictional drama.
ADD recently spoke with Gervasi about the Anvil movie, how it has impacted his life and that of the band and what his next projects are.
There are very few metal magazines left on newsstands in America, but there is an increasing number of metal documentaries. It’s making me wonder if that’s how younger listeners are learning about classic bands these days.
It’s weird, yeah.
On top of various documentaries shown on cable television and released on DVD recently, there have been the theatrical releases of Anvil! The Story Of Anvil and Iron Maiden’s Flight 666…
I don’t know if it’s a trend but there’s certainly more awareness about these movies. I think Flight 666 and Anvil! are very, very different movies. I think one is a concert film and one is a movie, and there is a huge difference between the two.
Did you start the Anvil film as a lark just to see what happened?
Kind of. I don’t know if it was a lark, but it was more that I met Lips again after 20 years and was so blown away by him. He was so compelling in his absolute belief that one day things would happen for Anvil. Of course, on the surface to look at him you’d think he is completely out of his mind. When we started spending time with him, the passion and belief level was so intense…at the beginning of the weekend I thought he was crazy and by Sunday night I was thinking he’s right, Anvil’s going to make it. The winning enthusiasm of the singer was huge in making me realize that there was a movie [there]. Maybe it’s about people who refuse to give up, even though they really should, according to the world, and also exploring the beauty of what it means to have that level of defiance and that level of belief and magical thinking. Cut to a week ago, [with me] standing on the side of the stage in Moncton, New Brunswick, with Anvil blowing away 72,000 fans as they opened for AC/DC in the biggest concert of their lives, in their home country. It’s happening. There you go, it’s a dream coming true.
It’s a strange time for the music industry, with bands making more money touring than selling albums. And you chose an interesting way to promote the film with your “Anvil Experience” screenings.
Anvil is really a touring band. They’re a live act. And specifically in conjunction with the movie, it becomes a really interesting live event. You don’t see a movie, fall in love with the characters, and then they burst out of the screen and play to you, right in the movie theater. That’s not done. I think that’s the really exciting part, that we have this crazy live event. It’s not like at the end of the movie they take off their wigs. That’s who they are. You get emotional about these people, and there they are, right there.
There are painful truths in this movie that resonate with audiences, and even though we’re laughing off some of their dilemmas, we sympathize greatly with Lips and Robb. While so many people seem to be compelled by the stories of American Idol contestants, those singers really haven’t gone through what famous classic rock bands like Aerosmith or Judas Priest or Maiden have. Members of those groups often grew up together, endured tough times together, clashed personally and artistically and evolved because of those experiences. That’s what made them strong and gave them character. And Anvil have gone through more hardship than most bands ever will, don’t you think?
That’s true, and I think that’s why people respect that. Whether you like the band or like the music or don’t, it doesn’t make a difference because it’s ultimately not about that. It’s about their experience and still being together after 36 years and still going for it. That’s pretty exemplary, no matter what field it could be. Lips said they could have been pyramid builders or guys on an oil rig. It’s the same qualities. They’re still here pounding away. I think that’s important and that’s why it’s resonating. It’s really nothing to do with the music. In fact, the music to most people is kind of off-putting. Ironically the people who hate heavy metal the most seem to be the ones who love the movie the most. It’s weird.
Are you shooting more material for a follow-up?
Yes. We’ve been filming a lot of stuff. I filmed them at Giants Stadium, and we’ve just been doing a lot of stuff, so who knows what is going to come of that. We don’t know what we’re going to do with all the footage yet, but we’re going to figure it out.
It looks like 2009 is the year of Anvil. Hopefully the success of this movie will allow them to have a stronger touring career in the future?
AC/DC added them to the bill, and they had a great spike in ticket sales. People are interested in the band. If AC/DC is adding them to the bill and the promoters think it’s making a difference, that’s a good sign for Anvil. They’re starting to make money now, so from my point-of-view, it’s mission accomplished. They’re going to have a way longer, more successful career now as a result of the film than they were going to prior to this.
How do their spouses feel about all of this?
They think it’s great. It’s a lot of change, but they’re very proud that they’ve stuck by these guys who stuck with it for so long, and they’re now seeing the results of the hard work. Lips’ wife is excited because there’s a two-page article on Anvil in this month’s Hustler in Canada. She’s like, “Why is my husband in Hustler? Why aren’t I in it?” It’s just funny. They’re having fun with it, I think.
How has this movie changed your life?
Look, it’s been huge for me. Here’s a movie I made completely my way and on my terms, and it’s insane. It’s got a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. All of that stuff is great for me. People are interested in working with me. People are learning more about know who I am and embracing the movie.
You wrote the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal many years ago. This was an interesting switch.
I still do big studio Hollywood stuff — uncredited rewrites and all sorts of things. I worked briefly on the new Transformers. I wrote the Shia LaBeouf line, “My low self-esteem is at an all-time high.” So I continue to have those experiences. I have a very good day job.
What is the next project for you?
I’m doing the story of Hervé Villechaize. He was Tattoo on Fantasy Island. I interviewed him and a week later he killed himself, so I’m doing the true story of his last week alive. It’s going to be interesting. We’re working it out right now, so it’s all coming together.