February 16 - 22, 2009
PEDAL TO THE METAL
If you thought Spinal Tap was a joke, then consider the true story of metal band Anvil, directed by their roadie Sacha Gervasi in a riotous new rockumentary. Leigh Singer meets the living legends.
Aging rockers out to recapture past glories. Inter-band feuds, getting lost on the way to gigs, playing to handfuls of people in venues designed for thousands. Even amps that go up to eleven.
Fans of legendary mock-documentary This is Spinal Tap are no doubt already reciting the memorable quotes assigned to their favourite fake heavy metal heroes. So they’re liable to be as confused as Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel to learn that the above description isn’t of a fictional English band but of a very real Canadian one.
Anvil were metal pioneers, the forerunners of Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica, whose own success never matched their influence. Since the late 1970s, band founders guitarist Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (an extra ‘b’ all that separates his name from Spinal Tap’s director!) have toiled away, often working dead-end jobs to get their sporadic fixes of rock star status.
Now, into their 50s, Lips and Reiner might just be closer to their dreams than at any time since their early 80s heyday – largely thanks to a documentary made by their onetime teenage-roadie-turned-Hollywood-player.
Sacha Gervasi grew up in England (from American and Canadian parents), became a thoroughly unfashionable metal head in the age of the New Romantics and fell for Anvil, their uncompromisingly heavy sound and crazy onstage antics. “Lips was always so outrageous,” Gervasi reminisces. “He played his guitar with a dildo and they were a great live band. To this day, the shows I saw in ‘82-83 were astonishingly good.”
Gervasi’s enthusiasm - and chutzpah – got him backstage and, having bonded with the band, they were persuaded to hire him as their roadie. Aged just fifteen, he ran off to join Anvil for an epic US tour; basically the movie Almost Famous became his life.
“All my metal friends were so envious when I came back,” he chuckles. “Most of them had been on, like, family holidays cycling in Wiltshire and there I was on a tour bus in the parking lot of a Hockey Arena getting my first blowjob from a girl named Gina who was wearing tangerine hotpants. It was very surreal.”
Surreal doesn’t begin to describe how events transpired 25 years later. Gervasi was now a successful screenwriter (he wrote Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal starring Tom Hanks) and suddenly wondered what had become of his former heroes. He got in touch through their website - citing his old Anvil roadie nickname “Teabag” – and heard back from Lips within an hour. Flying Lips out to L.A weeks later, it became clear that Anvil’s story, especially the dynamic between Lips and Robb, was firmly in stranger–than-fiction territory and needed to be told.
“At which point I flipped out,” marvels Lips, an overgrown puppy whose fantastically quotable observations are as good as any comic creation. Though he’d seen The Terminal, he’d never connected it to ‘Teabag’. “I was under the impression for years that his last name was Gervais,” he shrugs.
“Nothing like this has ever been done,” Lips insists, “where you take regular people – and I consider myself a regular person – and basically you get takes of stuff that’s better than acting, because it’s real.”
He’s not the only one who felt that way: Gervasi’s cameraman apparently “locked me in a hotel room and said ‘You don’t have to tell the crew but you have to tell me for my own sanity, if these guys are actors,’” he relates. “And he really hoped that they were. At the Monsters of Transylvania festival during Robb’s drum solo, Lips rushed off stage in pain and was squatting behind the Marshall amp because his haemorrhoids had popped out because he’d been screaming so hard. You could never write that.”
The film’s comic highlights are undoubtedly hilarious and Gervasi deliberately plays up the Spinal Tap connections – it’s Lips’s favourite film too - but Anvil would never have, ahem, struck such a chord if it didn’t also brilliantly, poignantly showcase people still pursuing their dream at a age and a stage in life where most have long since abandoned all hope.
Excerpts on Robb’s father’s concentration camp internment or when Lips’s sister loans him the money to record Anvil’s potential comeback record are ineffably moving. You want these guys to make it, but you’re aware they won’t automatically be granted a Hollywood happily-ever-after.
“It does divide opinion,” notes Gervasi. “Some people see it as really tragic but I’m on the other side thinking, you know what, they haven’t quit. You have to give it to them for that.”
Interestingly, though the film practically throbs with Lips’s determination to succeed, right now he’s adamant that Anvil “has existed in the way we’ve virtually wanted to exist, because with metal you don’t commercialise if you’re the real shit.” Gervasi suggests that this might be a reaction to the possibility that “now the band really has a chance to blow up and… the prospect is a little intimidating.”
In terms of where the band does go from here, as Lips puts it, “the jury’s still out. Maybe everybody will be sick of us, I don’t know.” But it seems unlikely.
If sheer goodwill alone could propel them, Anvil would be Top 10 already. The film documents rock gods from Lemmy to Slash paying tribute. At last year’s London Film Festival, fellow Canuck Keanu Reeves – with no vested interest in the film itself – flew in specially to introduce the screening, after which Anvil played a knockout gig in the cinema to adoring – and many newly-converted - fans. “When people meet the guys after the film they tend to flip out,” smiles Gervasi. “There’s nothing more powerful.”
Or potentially more life-changing. “All that I want to come out of this,” says Lips, “is to be able to create the music I create without having to worry if it’s going to be played on the radio or not, and to make a living out of it. If I can make that happen then all my dreams have come true.”
Anvil: The Story of Anvil is out February 20th 2009