There's an old joke. A kid wandering around the circus tent after a show runs into an older guy who's shoveling up a trail of shit left by one of the elephants. "That doesn't look like much fun," the kid ventures. "Oh, it's terrible," says the old guy, "It's all shit and abuse and the pay is the worst." "So why don't you find a better job?" the kid asks. The old guy looks at him askance. "What, and get out of show business?"
I was reminded of this after seeing the perfectly titled Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a heavy metal band that's lately been delighting -- or we should say, slaying -- audiences across America. If like me you haven't had much use for heavy metal in your life, aside from repeat viewings of This is Spinal Tap, you might not be inclined to run to your local multiplex to see it. But I'm going to suggest you do just that, as it's certainly one of the best movies of the year thus far.
The New Yorker's Anthony Lane is a far wittier critic than I'll ever be, and this passage from his review should serve to set things up for you:
This film is about a failed heavy-metal band, which sounds about as purposeful as a vegan shark. Back in the nineteen-eighties, Anvil was, if not huge, on the verge of hugeness. It was never, according to the movie, one of the Big Four—a term that I always associated with the Paris peace conference of 1919, but which, on further inspection, turns out to refer to Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. (Specialists might prefer to file them under thrash metal, that delicate subset of the genre, but “Anvil!” is wise enough to steer clear of such hairsplitting, not least because, in a world where most of the guitarists look like exploded spaniels, there is an awful lot of hair to split.) Still, Anvil had its adherents, and we find a swarm of them in a clip of the Super Rock Festival of 1984, in Japan, where the band’s lead singer, Steve Kudlow, can be seen onstage playing his guitar with a sex toy, thus raising the question of whether he takes his plectrum to bed.
But "failed heavy-metal band" doesn't really do the guys justice, as the very issue of failure vs. success forms the subtext of Anvil's saga. When you've managed to keep your band together, performing and recording, for 30 years and you still have a rabid (albeit relatively small) following, does that constitute failure? "What is success?" is one of those eternal questions, perhaps second only to Freud's big one ("What does a woman want?") in the annals of human inquiry, but Anvil does come close to supplying an answer of sorts, and it has something to do with the passion implicit in that elephant manure-minder's response.
And it certainly comes down to character. Despite their hair, leather and ear-splitting pyrotechnics, Anvil's leader, Lips (born Steve Kudlow) and his lifetime comrade-in-arms, drummer Robb Reiner (I know, I know, the synchronistic Tap resonances abound) are actually two nice Jewish boys from Toronto. Their dedication to their music (and to each other) seems however to embody what we think of as American values, neatly noted in a quote from writer Joan Acocella, in Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints:
What allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite, "ego strength", meaning amongst other things, ordinary Sunday-school virtues, such as tenacity, and above all the ability to survive disappointment.
Speaking of quotes, one of the great delights in the documentary comes from Robb and Lips' philosophical pronouncements (one eagerly awaits a Gospel According to Anvil). This passage from Kenneth Turan's L.A. Times review includes a choice sampling:
Though both men are in their 50s now, with families and day jobs, they
haven't given up on breaking through the way their peers did. "Time
doesn't move backwards, it moves forwards," Lips says with
characteristic earnestness, as the group decides to give stardom one
So, director Gervasi and cinematographer Chris Soos follow along as Anvil goes on the European tour from hell, masterminded by a new manager who can't seem to get the hang of railway schedules. "It's a good thing we got those sleeping bags," Lips says, ever the optimist, as the boys miss yet another train. Yes, he admits later, "things went dramatically wrong, but at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on."
Anvil's stubborn refusal to say die is a core fascination of the movie, and thus I was intrigued to learn that one of filmmaker Sacha Gervasi's credits is the screenplay for Spielberg's The Terminal, a movie that did not know how or when to end; this implies that it wasn't merely Gervasi's having been an Anvil roadie in his youth that led to the making of the film.
But are we not all Anvil, or rather, have we not been them at some point in our creative lives? The more daunting question is, are you Anvil now?
I had a particularly personal reaction to the movie, having been an aspiring rock star in my youth, who had an album released on a major label while still in college, had songs of mine covered by an icon or two, and made a reasonable living as a sideman for many years before I finally gave up the rock'n'roll ghost. I was fortunate enough to possess more than the one skill set, so I was spared the ignoble fate of say, playing synth for some has-been third-tier singer-songwriter at a bar in Podunk in my ripe old age. But as for my more recent career...
Screenwriting is generally thought to be a young man's (or woman's) game, and I'm not far from the Anvil-ites in age. And though this job has a far more ephemeral scale, re: failure and success -- the hills of Hollywood are replete with optioned, well-paid but still unproduced screenwriters who are crying in their swimming pools -- I do sometimes wonder about the longevity of my current sometimes-livelihood.
When are we too old to keep doing what we love to do? People of my generation have long given the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald's by-now wholly passé maxim, "In America there are no second acts." But it takes a good deal of insight and lack of illusion to see your second act turning point when it's upon you, and realize it's time to move into your third. That move, especially for a generation with increasingly long back ends, is a move that often requires a change in job description to insure survival.
In this regard, Anvil! The Story of Anvil brings a message of hope to the longevity-challenged those of us who are still tilling the fields of creativity. And it's a wonderful irony that the release of the film, and its warm reception, no doubt guarantees the band a longer, stronger life (and a far larger audience) than it's ever had before. In a way, they're already seeing their dream come true, though not in the way they might have envisioned it (there's something Canadian about that, eh?).
Such are the rewards of perseverance and the vagaries of fate. We can't all be so fortunate, of course, but it's good to have inspiring role models, however unlikely. So excuse me now, but I've got a first draft to get back to. For even if it goes dramatically wrong, at least there will have been a draft to go wrong with.
[Anvil photos (color) by Brent J. Craig]