The year 2009 saw the official release of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a now-legendary rockumentary about, obviously, Anvil — a Canadian metal band that never quite made the big-time, despite having major early buzz and famous fans like Slash, Lemmy Kilmister (who once asked Anvil frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow to join Motorhead), and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. But Anvil’s biggest fan of all was film director Sacha Gervasi, who was there from the very beginning as their 15-year-old volunteer roadie. He never forgot the kindness that Lips and Anvil drummer Robb Reiner showed him in the early ‘80s, and when he was finally in a position to return the favor, he most definitely did.
Gervasi’s labor-of-love project, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, became one of the most successful and beloved music docs of all time — Martin Scorsese, Jimmy Page, Dustin Hoffman, Chris Martin, Jay-Z, Dave Grohl, and Anthony Bourdain all sang its praises — and it ironically brought Anvil the success they’d been dreaming of all along, completely rebooting their career.
Now Gervasi and the band are celebrating by reissuing the film for its 13th anniversary — “It's the bar mitzvah; some people were at the bris, and we're at the bar mitzvah now,” Gervasi jokes — reflecting with Yahoo Entertainment on how it all began.
“The first I heard of Anvil was on the front cover of Sounds magazine. I think it was April 6, 1982. And it was Lips holding a chainsaw, wearing a bondage outfit, clenching a dildo between his teeth, and the headline was ‘Anvil is coming,’” Gervasi chuckles. “So, I saw the image. Then I heard the record. … It was really the beginning of thrash speed metal; if you listen to tracks like ‘March of the Crabs’ and ‘666,’ you really hear the genesis of that style of music. And I had never really heard anything like that before. It was just so f***ing amazing.”
When Anvil eventually came to the U.K. for a run of sold-out gigs, Gervasi made sure he was there. “He was a cute kid that came to the door of our changing room at the Marquee Club in London, England, and it was just remarkable. He knew all about our music, and to us it was a real novelty, because we hadn't really had never really talked to a foreign fan,” Lips says with a grin.
“When they came onstage at the Marquee, people were just stunned to silence by the level of metal. It was just like being crushed by a giant anvil. It was just complete. It was decimating,” Gervasi recalls. “And as Lips said, I just went into the changing room. I was like, ‘I gotta f***ing meet these people!’ I went up to them. I said, ‘I'm your No. 1 English fan!’”
“And then he asked if he could take us out and show us around the city, and we went out and he took us to all different places in around the city, particularly to Carnaby Street, where we could buy the heavy metal stuff, studded belts and leather jackets and stuff like that,” Lips says.
“They'd never been to London before, so I said, ‘I'll take you around,’” says Gervasi. “And I took them back to my house at Abbey Road and I opened the door, and my mother was there — a classically trained piano player who hated anything heavy metal. I'd been playing [Anvil’s 1982 sophomore album] Metal on Metal all summer; it was driving her crazy! I had posters of Anvil on my walls. And they were standing with me at the doorstep of our house, and she looked at me and looked at them, and was like, ‘You've got five minutes.’”
Gervasi, who’d earned the amusing nickname “Teabag” from the band because of his Englishness, ended up spending way more than 15 minutes with the band. He soon made good on his promise to visit them in Canada, showing up unannounced on Lips's doorstep in tight red Carnaby Street trousers and offering to work for Anvil. “I went on the road with them several times, and we became close and our families got to know each other. So, there's a real personal connection that goes back actually 40 years, exactly, to this year, to 1982,” says the director. “I think there’s something magical about that.”
Many years later, when Anvil had fallen on harder times but were still doggedly pursuing their rock ‘n’ roll dream, they didn’t hesitate to say yes when Gervasi offered to make a movie about them — a story they may not have entrusted to a director with whom they didn’t share all that history. “It was pretty simple for me,” shrugs the stoic Reiner. “Sacha, I trusted him as a friend. That was it. It was easy. He just said to me, ‘All you have to do is be yourself and everything is gonna be good.’ And I said, ‘That's all I gotta do? That's gonna be easy.’ At the end of the day, he also did say that if there was anything that we didn't like about any of it, then we can remove it or change it. So, we let him film everything.”
“When Sacha approached me, I knew the answer to everything, to the point where we are even today — it was the immediate answer to my lifelong dream,” says the forever unflappable Lips. “I recognized it as my ship coming in, and I knew that it would be probably the most important and significant thing I had ever been part of — not only for me, but also more possibly, even, for Sacha. This would end up being somewhat of a hallmark, or something that we're going be known for the rest of our lives. I was so positive-thinking about it that I took it for granted the whole time during the filming that it was going to the Sundance Festival: ‘It's going to Sundance — of course it is, right? Why wouldn't it be? It's a shoo-in!’”
And Lips was right. Anvil! did eventually receive a rapturous response at Sundance, and it went on to Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, Best Feature Documentary and Music Film at IDA, the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at Los Angeles Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival, and an Emmy for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming.
While Anvil! The Story of Anvil opened, or reopened, many doors for the band, Lips — always a man of steadfast self-belief — never doubted that Anvil would be successful, in their own way. “It's not so much about the big-time,” he explains. “That's an unrealistic goal. My actual intention was to stay in the underground for decades and put out a multitude of albums. And if there was a time to cash in, it would be in the last closing years. I mean, the time to really actually become above-ground is when you've put out 20 albums. I mean, wouldn't it be better to actually have your big hit album after 20 albums — and then people have 20 albums to buy?”
So now, when most of Anvil’s metal peers are retiring, Anvil are just getting started, thanks to their big silver-screen break. “It couldn't have worked out in more of a positive way, because I don't know that we would have the same level of appreciation for what has happened if it had happened when I was very young,” Lips, now age 66, points out. “I also believe that I'm better for in the long run in many, many different personal ways, in the sense that I was able to create a regular man's household where I'm married, I have children, I own property. I have what everybody else had, and I attained it the way that everybody else does, by working regular jobs. But at the end of the day, what ended up happening is I retired into what my real passion was my whole life. And that's what the biggest difference is. I'm not wasting away in retirement; I'm actually out traveling all over the world being a rock star. ... I haven't had a month off in nine years!”
“I think it needs to be pointed out that Anvil — Robb and Lips — have not worked any kind of day job since the movie came out,” Sacha says with a proud smile.
“Yep, that’s right,” Reiner says with a wry smile. “The band is our official ‘shitty day job.’”
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— Video produced by Kyle Moss, edited by Steve Michel