Another Movie Guy?: "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

It seems appropriate that the rock band Anvil experience their peak only a few months after the release of This Is Spinal Tap. The bands suffer similar indignities. While Rob Reiner mercilessly skewers his characters, the stars of Sacha Gervasi‘s Anvil! The Story of Anvil easily win the audience’s sympathy. Lifetime friends Lips and Robb, the band’s only original members, could have easily sunk into depression or move on with their lives. Yet metal is their only passion, so they must succeed. Gervasi documents familiar highs and lows, but because the band has such a relentlessly positive attitude, their story nonetheless has some emotional impact. It’s like This is Spinal Tap, only more heart-warming.

In the summer of 1984, Anvil tours with metal acts like Scorpions and Bon Jovi. After the tour, other bands succeed by stealing Anvil’s sound. Due to poor management and an unprofessional record company, Anvil spends decades in obscurity. Now guitarist/singer Lips and drummer Robb are in their fifties, and work blue-collar jobs. They can still rock – sometimes the band plays for their small legion of devoted fans. Then Lips gets a surprising phone call – a devoted fan named Tiziana booked them a European tour. Lips and Robb leave their families behind for Europe, and of course everything goes wrong. They miss gigs due to improper planning, and when they do perform, no one pays them. Yet Lips and Robb return to Canada more determined than ever. They record a new album, this time with better production values, and hustle the major labels for a new contract. Again and again they face rejection, and (almost) abandon all hope.

Robb and Lips are key to the movie’s success. They are nice guys, perhaps to a fault, and trust the wrong people too easily. Even when Lips gets angry, such as the time he profanely berates a Czech club owner, he still is a nice guy. For the most part, Lips has a contagiously goofy grin. Robb, on the other hand, is more subdued and pragmatic, and serves as a good foil. They are devoted best friends, more like brothers, and routinely speak with painful earnestness that is more endearing than pathetic. Their outlandish creativity does not match their down-to-earth nature. Lips often plays his guitar with a dildo, and Robb paints pictures of bowel movements. It becomes clear that even in their 50s, these guys merely have raw talent, and can only be as successful as their professional associations permit them. Gervasi was once a roadie for the band, and the familiarity with his subject serves well. Others speak to the camera with recognizable reservation, but Rob and Lips are remarkably candid. It should come as no surprise that Anvil finally achieves some success – what is surprising, however, is how moving the final scenes are. Sure, Gervasi shamelessly edits the scenes to get the happiest conclusion possible, but after 25 years of strife, Anvil absolutely deserves such sentimentality.

There is a brief moment in Anvil! The Story of Anvil that explicitly references This is Spinal Tap. As Anvil prepares in the recording studio, there is a shot of an amp that goes to 11. If you recall, David St. Hubbins sounds like a pompous idiot when he tries to explain the extra number. Lips and Robb never discuss the mockumentary, yet the brief shot demonstrates that even if Lips and Robb take their music seriously, they do not take themselves seriously. These little touches (there are more) help make the movie a smashing success. Lips and Robb completely won me over – I wouldn’t be surprised if Anvil! The Story of Anvil becomes the most popular documentary since The King of Kong.

As a special added bonus, Anvil will perform Wednesday at E Street after the 9:45 show.

Here are other entertaining rock documentaries in which the director regards his subject with an odd mix of sympathy and mockery:

Hated: G.G. Allin & the Murder Junkies. If nothing else, GG Allin (born Jesus Christ Allin) gave audiences something to watch. As leader of the Murder Junkies, he would routinely do terrible things to himself on stage – knock in his teeth with a microphone, fight audience members, smear feces on his body, shove fruit up his ass. Occasionally he would play songs too, which were similarly crude and profane. Todd Phillips, director of Old School and the upcoming comedyThe Hangover, rightly saw Allin as an excellent subject for a film school project. He follows Allin and his band around to get some idea of about what made this guy tick. Allin’s idea was that such obscene behavior would make rock music dangerous again – personally I think he suffered from the perfect storm of emotional trauma, drug addiction, and narcissistic masochism. There are still some memorable scenes, particularly the one in which an contemptuous audience member dares Allin to kill himself (to the chagrin of many fans, Allin did not fulfill his promise of killing himself on October 31, 1992). Phillips initially adopts a neutral stance on his subject, but becomes more critical as the movie continues. When the Murder Junkies frontman finally overdoses in 1993, Phillips regards his death as just another rock cliché. Watching this movie is akin to watching a sideshow – the novelty of Allin wears thin. Yet if you’re as fascinated by rock’s lunatic fringe as I am, I highly recommend it. Just be sure to budget time for a shower afterward (no, I’m not kidding).

Overnight. Troy Duffy is best known for directing The Boondock Saints, a Tarantino knock-off that’s adored by legions of college sophomores. Given what transpires in Overnight, which details Duffy’s rise and fall, it’ll be a surprise if he ever amounts to anything else. Duffy starts with a promising future – the former bartender just got a movie deal with Miramax, and Harvey Weinstein signs his band. Weinstein and Duffy even become co-owners of an LA bar. Willem Dafoe signs on to star in the movie. Now it’s worth noting even before all this good fortune, Duffy already has a massive ego, so these developments inflate his ego to a truly obscene degree. We see Duffy alienate his bandmates, talk shit about everyone (especially actors), and generally act like a king-sized prick. Trust me when I say you’ll want Duffy to fail. Thankfully he does – I won’t spoil just how he fails, except to say that he ends up worse than where he started. At first directors Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith are just filming their friend. Only when things start to go south does Overnight’s true subject emerge. The result feels a little lop-sided. The first half has more in common with a home movie than a documentary, whereas the second half is an incisive portrayal of one man’s considerable decline. Nonetheless, this is entertaining little movie, particular for those who have seen The Boondock Saints more than a few times (as I have). I can’t think of a single better instance of pure cinematic schadenfreude.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Director Suroosh Alvi sets the tone of his documentary right at the first shot. Looking at the camera, Alvi describes the extreme measures he must take to protect himself just so he can interview Acrassicauda, Baghdad’s sole metal band. He says he does this because “Metal fucking rules.” Vice magazine featured Acrassicauda (which means “black scorpion”) in a 2003 issue, so in 2006 Alvi and co-director Eddy Moretti travel to Iraq to see how the band is doing. In 2003, they band shows promise, and the guitarist in particular has a great deal of talent. The lyrics provide an unique perspective of Iraqi life. Acrassicauda plays anywhere, and like many other metal bands, they develop a small-but-devoted fan base. Fast forward a few years later – they haven’t played a show in months, a rocket destroys their rehearsal space, and as refugees in Syria, matters only become worse. Band members describe a situation that I imagine many displaced Iraqis face every day. Alongside Acrassicauda’s story, the co-directors show how they reach the band, and give their impressions of what they see along the way. The end result is like a 60 minutes segment but with Vice’s sardonic edge. Whereas Hated and Overnight never really transcend their subject, Heavy Metal in Baghdad is important viewing, and a must-see for anyone with an interest in the effects of American foreign policy.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week I when I date a call girl.