Tom Roston

Heavy Mental: The Story of Anvil
By Tom Roston
Spin, October 2008

Heavy MentalSomething was wrong. On the second night in Prague shooting the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, cinematographer Chris Soos approached director Sacha Gervasi looking deadly serious.

The subjects of the film, the semi-legendary Canadian heavy-metal band Anvil, had just gotten lost driving the rinky-dink RV they’d rented for the Czech leg of their 2005 European tour. Unable to read the road signs, they showed up two hours late to a gig, which led to a shoving match with the owner of the club, who tried to pay the band in bowls of goulash. Then a lawyer emerged from the crowd and handed his card to Anvil’s lead singer, Lips, and drummer, Robbo, declaring, “Anvil should be playing before a thousand people, minimum, given your reputation. And you are not. And you can ask yourself, Why are you not doing that?”

“I’ve been asking myself that for 20 years,” Lips said.

“I could answer that in one word,” Robbo added. “Two words…three words: We haven’t got good management.”

It had been a sad, hilarious day. And then Soos pulled Gervasi aside for a heart-to-heart.

“He had the look of a man who was dying of cancer or whose parents had just died,” Gervasi recalls. “He said, ‘My crew doesn’t have to know, but tell me: Are they actors?’ That’s all he wanted to know. My own cameraman couldn’t believe it was completely real.”

The 42-year-old London-born Gervasi is a good storyteller, a screenwriter (The Big Tease, The Terminal) who has plied his trade in Hollywood for over a decade. He recounts the tale over lunch in the Brooklyn Marriott, where the members of Anvil—Steve “Lips” Kudlow, 52; Robb “Robbo” Reiner, 50; and bassist Glenn “Glenn 5” Gyorffy, 38—have gathered before heading over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a screening of the documentary. When the movie ends, they’ll play in the lobby.

“Everything in that movie is 100 percent natural and real,” Robbo says. “We could have cameras going right here, filming what’s happening now. That’s all that that was.”

And then, on cue, Lips interjects with some commentary that could be culled from the stoner-wisdom dialogue in the film. “I am not an actor,” he says. “When I walk out of the movie, I’m still me.” He stares down at the dish of coleslaw before him, trying to get a grip on his train of thought. (Indeed, several people present have just gone downstairs to smoke pot.)

Lips finds his footing: “So when I find myself speaking and I hear my voice and act like I do in the movie, it’s very odd.” He pauses for a few beats. “It’s really weird, man. Very odd.”

“You’re freaking yourself out,” says Gervasi, trying to bring Lips back to earth.

Ever since Anvil! The Story of Anvil premiered at Sundance this past January, it has been teasing audiences with the question, How could these guys be real? Even John Cooper, the head programmer at the festival, thought the film was a hoax when he first saw it. He scoured the Internet until he found a long backlog of Anvil albums and determined that truth can indeed be funnier than fiction.

Centered on two unlikely heroes living in the gutter but looking up at the stars, the documentary has won audience awards at film festivals in Los Angeles and Sydney. Scenes of on-the-road miscues, Robbo waxing poetic about a poop painting hanging in his home, and Lips delivering dialogue about how his life “couldn’t get any worse…unless it gets worse” have drawn favorable comparisons with that other film about a hapless never-quite-was heavy-metal band, This Is Spinal Tap.

The movie traces the history of Anvil from their ’70s origins as a group of nice Jewish headbangers in a Toronto suburb through their brief heyday in the early ’80s, when they sported dog collars and tight pants with huge bulges and were prone to synchronized guitar-pounding in songs such as “Butter-Bust Jerky” and “Show Me Your Tits.” Lips enjoyed wearing bondage harnesses and playing his Flying V guitar with a dildo, and he even appeared on a Canadian talk show, defending the band’s sexist—or was that sexy?—lyrics.

But the band never made it big. While similar acts sold millions of records and then self-destructed, Anvil plugged along, releasing albums on their own or with minor indie-label support. The documentary so closely echoes Spinal Tap in details and narrative arc—you’ve got boyhood pals sitting in a diner recounting the first song they wrote together shortly before a huge fight; an amp that goes to 11; a visit to Stonehenge; a climactic, redemptive gig in Japan; and a drummer whose name appears to be a misspelling of Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner’s—that it could be sold as a real-life version of the 1984 mockumentary, and Gervasi is happy to oblige.

“There are deliberate parallels,” he says. “I wanted audiences to see that, and then I wanted to subvert it. They are Spinal Tap, for real, but they are also two guys in a complex, deep friendship. You’re laughing at Lips and Robb because they’re 50-year-old guys playing heavy metal. But then you think, ‘Wait, they are more authentically connected to their dreams than most of the people in the audience.’”

And so it makes strange sense that, after 30 years of toiling in obscurity, of enduring record-store signings where no one showed up, of having to work dead-end jobs such as sweeping up doughnuts in a parking lot, it would take a documentary so similar to Spinal Tap to finally, possibly, when it is released to theaters this month[no, actually, early next year! But they are touring with the documentary in the fall], bring Anvil the attention they’ve been lacking all these years. It’s a realization Lips quickly sobered up to when Gervasi first approached him with the idea to do the film.

“I am going to give myself to the world and validate everything I’ve done,” Lips recalls thinking. “I felt, ‘Ah, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for.’ I’ve been doing this band for 30 years for this movie.”

In a sense, Sacha Gervasi has also been working toward making Anvil! for most of his life. He first met the band back when he was a 15-year-old headbanger in 1982, when he went to see them play at London’s Marquee Club, the epicenter of the new wave of British heavy metal. The show was “like standing next to a DC-10 during takeoff,” Gervasi says. “It was so loud. They had the double bass drum, the ehn-ehn-ehn chugga-chugga heavy stuff that I hadn’t heard before. And Lips was just insane. It was like a circus.”

After the set, Gervasi, who was a budding drummer at the time, went backstage and volunteered to show the band around London the next day. Soon, “Teabag,” as the members of Anvil still call him today, was working as a roadie for several Anvil tours, setting up Robbo’s drum kit and selling T-shirts. But Gervasi lost contact with Lips and Robbo as his musical tastes changed (he began listening to Iggy Pop and David Bowie). As a student at the posh Westminster School in London (where actress Helena Bonham Carter was a classmate), Gervasi rubbed elbows with “an amazing mix of overachievers and people who have since died,” he says. In his early 20s, he worked for poet Ted Hughes, helping to raise money for a charity Hughes had started with his former wife, Sylvia Plath,[I am looking further into this but it doesn’t seem like Sylvia was involved.]convincing the likes of Annie Lennox, Eric Clapton, and Boy George to contribute rock collectibles to the organization’s coffers.

In 1992, one of Gervasi’s childhood friends, Gavin Rossdale, asked him to be the drummer for his band, Future Primitive. Gervasi was into it for a short while, but he “didn’t want to be the drummer in someone else’s band,” so he dropped out to pursue his first passion, writing. Soon after, Rossdale changed the name of the band to Bush and released the multiplatinum album Sixteen Stone, which included many of the songs Gervasi initially played on. Meanwhile, Gervasi went to work as an entertainment journalist before moving to Los Angeles to enroll in UCLA’s screenwriting program.

Gervasi had been a big fan of the films of Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), whom he credits as an inspiration for his first Hollywood film, 1999’s The Big Tease, about a Scottish hairstylist dogged by a documentary crew. “Everything I have done is somehow reality-based,” Gervasi says, which is also true for 2004’s The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg, based on a man who actually lived in an airport. (Along the way, Gervasi maintained his connections with other boldfaced names, including former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, with whom he had a daughter. He is no longer in contact with Halliwell, and wouldn’t comment on their relationship or their child.)

In 2005, Gervasi found himself thinking, “What the fuck happened to Anvil?” He looked them up online and discovered that the band had continued to release albums over the years. He called up Lips, who lived in a Toronto suburb with his wife and 11-year-old son (Robbo lives tk[we weren’t able to get an answer onthis except to say that they both live in Toronto and not all that close to each other]blocks away, with his wife and their aspiring-drummer son), and invited him to L.A. Gervasi took Lips to the home of his friend and mentor, Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian. During the visit, Zaillian and Gervasi were in the kitchen when they caught sight out the window of Lips, on the lawn with Zaillian’s wife, gesticulating wildly and playing air guitar.

“He was trying to describe the syncopated time signatures and heaviness of his music,” Gervasi recalls. “It was hilarious. He was miming speed metal for the wife of the man who had written the screenplay for Schindler’s List.”

Zaillian asked Gervasi about Anvil’s lyrics, so the two looked up the words to “Five Knuckle Shuffle” online: “All I wanna do is beat my meat / Shakin’ steak, what a treat / Stroke it, stroke it, really hard / I wanna watch it blow a yard.”

“I had the idea right there,” Gervasi says. “I am not a documentary filmmaker. But I said to Steven, ‘Maybe there is a movie here.’ And Steven said, ‘There is. You have to go do it.’”

Another way to pose the question, How could these guys be real? is to ask: Should we even be taking them seriously?

“I didn’t think they were a joke at all,” answers Chris Tsangarides, a producer who has worked with Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Thin Lizzy, and who produced two of Anvil’s early-’80s albums, as well as their latest, This Is Thirteen. “I was very impressed by their musical ability. What did hit me when I first met them was their intensity and the speed of the music. And the really funny lyrics about debauched acts with women. There was a load of humor, but with very serious music.”

In the documentary, testimonials roll in from Lemmy of Motörhead, Slash, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, and Anthrax’s Scott Ian, who all give props to Anvil’s influential, heavy sound, as well as their stage presence. “You would be laughing as hard as you’d be banging your head,” Ulrich told Gervasi.

“I’ve never seen them do a bad show,” says Garry Sharpe-Young, a metal fan who’s written many books on the genre, including Metal: The Definitive Guide. “I’ve never heard them make a bad record.”

Sharpe-Young describes Anvil’s music as “very big-sounding, crunching heavy metal,” he says. “If you’re into new wave or pop, it’s easy to pour scorn on them. But heavy metal is a different kind of thing.”

Back at the Marriott, while Genesis’ “In Too Deep” plays in the background, Lips tries to break down the inherent humor in the music that he takes so seriously. “We get the giggles sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes it’s so heavy it’s funny. I’m sorry, man, it tickles our heavy-metal bone.”

A roar of laughter erupts from the table. “It tickles your heavy-metal bone?” Gervasi asks, “What the fuck is that?”

“There are songs that I have done purposefully funny, just hearing dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-deddla-deddla-deddla-deddle-deedle-ah. It’s like doing a Buster Keaton routine,” Lips says.

Lips admits that he’s “an entertainer first and a musician second,” which is no doubt why he and the band have been giddily soaking up audience reactions at about a dozen of film festival screenings. “We laugh harder at ourselves than most people who see the movie,” says G 5. “Some of the lines, we say them now like they’re from our favorite Austin Powers movie.”

Still, during filming, Gervasi maintains that there wasn’t any staging for the camera. “I mean, dude, they wrote a song called, ‘Thumb Hang’ [about the Spanish Inquisition]!” he exclaims. “I didn’t know that until I filmed it. I didn’t know half of the shit until the camera was on. We just turned it on and stuff happened.”

Gervasi filmed Anvil over two and a half years, capturing them at home in Toronto working mind-numbing jobs (Lips looking particularly sad, wearing a hairnet, transporting pans of meat loaf and shepherd’s pie for a commercial catering company; Robbo remaining stoic as a contractor, demolishing a sauna with a sledgehammer), playing gigs in Canada, and suffering numerous indignities on a sparsely attended, pitifully organized European tour.

In fact, rather than pump up the comedy, Gervasi says he had to decide which of the more hilarious moments should be excised from the film. (Lips’ onstage hemorrhoid incident didn’t make the cut.) “Yes, people will laugh,” the director says. “But we’ll do that to grab them and then go somewhere different. It’s a Billy Wilder thing.”

That “somewhere different” is the deep, sometimes tearful, lifelong bond between Robbo and Lips, and their seemingly Sisyphean resolution to record This Is Thirteen with Tsangarides in England in the desperate hope to rekindle the old magic and score a major-label deal and a proper manager.

The film doesn’t belabor the question of why, exactly, Anvil never made it big in the first place. For a short time, Anvil were flying high, opening for Motörhead and Aerosmith, and being handled by A-list manager David Krebs, who was also working with the likes of Aerosmith and AC/DC.

“Krebs was like, ‘You guys shouldn’t do all that heavy shit; you should go more commercial,’” Gervasi says. “And there was this perfect moment when it could have all happened, but in that moment, there was this band called Metallica out of the Bay Area.”

Gervasi himself sometimes sounds like the band’s new manager, but he’s more a combination of an artist in love with his muse and an activist supporting his cause. As for Robbo and Lips, they both acknowledge they were partly to blame for their inability to capture the moment. “We were young,” Lips says wistfully. “And as soon as we knew it, people were slamming their doors.’”

In a phone interview, Krebs, who isn’t mentioned in the documentary, says he can hardly remember working with Anvil. “They were a little too heavy metal for me,” he recalls. “But Anvil were great—they reminded me of Ted Nugent doing metal. Didn’t they get squashed by Kurt Cobain? Isn’t that what happened to that kind of music?”

Perhaps. But thanks to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Lips and Robbo are finding new life. “We are not going to squander our chances again,” Lips says. They are pumped to hit the road this fall for an unprecedented rock-and-doc multi-city tour in which screenings of the film will be followed by live sets. A deal with Virgin Records is even rumored to be in the works. This movie’s happy ending occurs long after the credits have rolled.

After lunch, the guys smoke another joint outside the hotel before piling into two cars. When they arrive at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—the screening is part of the Sundance at BAM series—four fans are waiting outside, asking for photographs and autographs. The screening provokes a standing ovation from an audience of 200 or so people, about 20 of whom are dedicated headbangers. The rest appear to be alt-rock ironists who seem to have swallowed Anvil! The Story of Anvil whole, like a gateway drug, and who are now ready to truly open their hearts up to metal for the first time.

The audience files in to BAM’s cavernous café, where Anvil launch into a thrashing, guitar-shredding instrumental. Lips walks into the crowd and plays his red Flying V at arm’s length from a Stella Artois–wielding man about half his age. The skinny fan mimics Lips’ crablike fretting with an unbridled display of air guitar. Lips widens his eyes as he plays a tight operatic scale while Robbo uses a double kick pedal to thunder away on a bass drum, laying down a deafening ground assault on the crowd.

After the 45-minute set, Robbo, the self-described “merch guy,” drags out two boxes and opens them. A line of people queue up, and he begins exchanging T-shirts and CDs for cash.

As people chat up Robbo and Lips, a rumor goes around that a prominent member of the rock intelligentsia had been frantically fingering his iPhone, looking up the band online in an attempt to verify that the documentary isn’t some elaborate ruse.

When Gervasi is told of the skeptic, he smiles. “To see that it was real?” he asks incredulously. “I guess that’s good, right?”