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The crowd roars, finally: Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

Ride the Lightning

By John Brodeur

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Directed by Sacha Gervasi

 

So there was this band in the early ’80s, from Toronto, called Anvil. You might have heard of them if you were seriously into heavy metal; they played some big Japanese music festivals and put out the influential Metal on Metal album in 1982. But these “demigods of Canadian metal” never achieved mainstream success, and bands they influenced passed them by. Too bad, because they were really something—onstage, the singer, Lips, wore bondage gear and played guitar with a vibrator. That still sounds insane. So when fame didn’t come, did Lips and the boys pack in the sex toys and call it quits?

Hell no.

Way beyond just a documentary about the making of the band’s latest (13th!) album, Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a flat-out home run, from the title right on down. Anvil is the story of two lifelong friends and the shared dreams they refuse to let go. It’s an ode to inspiration, to the human spirit, and to the spirit of rock & roll. An appreciation for metal certainly may enhance enjoyment, but it’s not necessary.

Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (the drummer) are the heart of Anvil—other band members have come and gone, but these two guys have been playing together since they were in high school. They’re turning 50, balancing families and menial day jobs, and still playing in the band at night and whenever they can, their passion for the music undiminished by diminishing returns commercially.

The film picks up as Lips is finalizing booking plans with a European “promoter” for the band’s biggest tour in a dozen years. It starts well enough but unravels quickly; the band miss trains, play for tiny audiences and battle shady clubowners. They want to make money with their music, but also they want respect for what they’ve done over their 30-year career; this tour is little help in either of those areas. But the fever never dies, as Lips soon gets the idea to approach the producer of Metal on Metal to work with the band on a new release.

The director conducts his film with candor and compassion. Gervasi, who self-identified as “England’s number one Anvil fan” while he was a roadie for the band in the ’80s, is a Hollywood screenwriter and first-time director. His admiration for his subjects shows in his work. The ups and downs, the spats, the goofy personality bits, all that stuff is left in to show that Lips and Robb are down to earth like anybody else, regular guys with a big dream.

The film is spiritually closest to American Movie—by the end you can’t help but root for the band’s success, regardless of whether you think what they’re doing is any good. Despite superficial similarities to This Is Spinal Tap (unavoidable in any modern rock film) there are no “Jazz Odyssey” tandems or bad military-hangar gigs here, just a few necessary tips of the hat (i.e., the band actually visits Stonehenge; the drummer’s name is Robb Reiner for chrissakes). But Lips and Robb are too self-aware to become caricatures; they’re not chumps.

Don’t be confused; Anvil is a very funny film, but in a very human way. In that same way it is sad, and invigorating, and real—maybe the most real film ever made about rock & roll music.

I’ve seen the film twice: first in a practically empty weeknight screening; later in a sold-out theater as part of “The Anvil Experience,” with an introduction from Gervasi and short live performance from the band. The same electricity came through in both the quiet darkness and the room full of metalheads. The fact that this little film is now bringing the band the recognition and success they’ve always hoped for is a minor miracle. And totally metal.

Express to Nowhere

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Directed by Tony Scott

In the 1970s, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was one of many great movies that shone a light on the cesspool of filth and lost dreams that New York City had become. A beleaguered MTA dispatcher (Walter Matthau) rises to the task of stopping a hostage taker whose rage against the bureaucratic machine compels him to make huge demands from it. That movie, like Death Wish, tapped into the hopelessness and fear that seemed to ooze out of every corner when one visited the city back then, and it all crystallizes in the back-and-forth exchanges between the MTA guy and the criminal.

Tony Scott’s remake of this movie captures a sense of New York as it is in a post-9/11 world. When something goes inexplicably wrong with the No. 6 train, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, in the Matthau role) almost imperceptibly tenses up. We’ve seen him adroitly deal with various track obstacles and system backups, so we know he’s good, really good, at what he does, but when nobody can explain what’s happening up on the enormous electronic grid that displays all tracks and trains, it’s clear that terrorism could be a very real threat. The movie plunges us into the situation without warning: Before the opening credits are done, we’re in the hostage situation, in which Ryder (John Travolta) and three accomplices deftly separate a subway car of 19 people and, bang, make the demand of $10 million within one hour, or hostages begin to die, one per minute.

The best aspect of the movie is the back-and-forth between the foxy Ryder and the resourceful Garber. It’s clear that Garber is meant to be the everyman hero, the way that, post-9/11, firefighters have reborn recognition, even sex appeal. Washington plays the role with a solidity befitting a lifetime bureaucrat, somebody who’s seen all sorts of crazy and learns to deal with it. He’s a good worker, but there’s a cloud of official suspicion hanging over him, a fact that Ryder skillfully employs to his advantage. For his part, Travolta hams it up, swearing like a dockworker and grinning like the cat who got the canary. While Travolta and Washington’s verbal cat-and-mouse is played well, it ultimately detracts from all those lives hanging in the balance, none of whom ever get a modicum of even stereotypical color.

As the tension mounts, and we wonder just how many hostages will die before New York City can get its act together, there are fine bits by James Gandolfini as the mayor and a surprisingly subtle John Turturro as a hostage negotiator. But Scott throws in too many spectacular car, taxi and motorcycle crashes, as if he doesn’t think the audience can handle the underground world in which the major action is taking place.

Scott’s camera blitzes all over the place, so that at times one feels as if he is on the runaway train that threatens lives near the end of the movie. Just as the original was of its time, this one is too, but in a vastly different way. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 presupposes that its audience needs immediate and constant gratification, and so the loud crashes and hurtling projectiles eclipse the buildup of suspense and the sense of time ticking ominously by.

—Laura Leon


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