Everybody went to school with a guy like Steve “Lips” Kudlow. The good-natured, long-haired, harmless-looking, hyper, million-jokes-a-minute, T-shirted neighborhood guy with a thrash metal garage band is a fixture of pop culture practically worldwide. And Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a delightfully homey documentary slice of pure rock ‘n’ roll life — part Wayne’s World, part This Is Spinal Tap, a touch of The Wrestler, and too funny to be anything but true.
Kudlow and school chum Robb Reiner (no relation to the director of Spinal Tap, but the coincidence is intriguing) met as teenagers and formed Anvil in the suburbs of Toronto, riding the heavy metal wave of the 1970s. By most accounts the group peaked sometime around 1982 with the release of its album Metal on Metal. Guitarist Kudlow and drummer Reiner, now in their fifties and still rocking, have been fighting a holding action ever since.
Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi keeps the focus on Anvil’s Canadian metal heartland, where we first meet Kudlow and his band mates playing a bar in Etobicoke, Ontario. Showbiz has been tough on them, but there’s no thought of quitting even though Kudlow’s day job as a van driver for Children’s Choice Catering (he delivers meals to schools) barely keeps his wife and children fed. Kudlow’ family is pretty much ashamed of him, but they support his tenacious spirit. Occupying the doc’s foreground is the recording and selling of Anvil’s thirteenth album, This Is Thirteen — no obscure metaphors for these guys; it’s all direct and in your face.
The group’s ups and downs would tax the combined imaginations of Christopher Guest, Mike Myers, and Rodney Bingenheimer (actually, most things would tax Rodney’s imagination). Anvil goes on a European tour, which is less deluxe than it sounds. Their manager, an incomprehensible woman named Tiziana (girlfriend of a band member), has trouble making travel connections for them. They perform at the Monsters of Transylvania rock festival in Romania before an audience of 174. They get into fisticuffs with a surly club owner. Kudlow’s hemorrhoids are really killing him.
They slink back to Toronto and it’s more disagreements with the family and more wedding gigs, blasting out such ditties as “Sweaty Betty” and “Butter-Bust Jerky” to appalled guests. The only humiliation they avoid is opening for a puppet show à la Spinal Tap. Through it all, Kudlow and Robb persevere like a pair of amiable numskulls who don’t know when they’re licked. Their reward is a reunion with their former producer, who offers to record the new thirteenth CD — but then Kudlow has to shop it around to a series of bored record label execs, most of whom have never heard of Anvil. He’s finally reduced to telemarketing pocket flashlights in order to support his art. Then, when all seems lost, Anvil is invited to play at Loud Park ’06, an international metal festival in Japan. The Japanese kids love them — but then they love just about anything from America.
That was then. Ever since former rock drummer Gervasi made Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Kudlow and Robb have enjoyed unprecedented notoriety. The film was a hit at the 2008 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Why the Jewish fest? Because Kudlow and Reiner are both Jewish), and reports from Los Angeles claim Hollywood and music-biz stars are suddenly flocking to their shows. Anvil gigged at Slim’s in SF on April 12 with a previews screening of the film. If anyone deserves success, it’s these classic schmoes. They’ve had lots of fun, traveled, never been debilitated by drugs, and they’re still doing what they love. That’s one definition of a well-spent life. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a winning way to thrash out an evening’s entertainment.
While we’re on the subject of 1970s-1980s rock nostalgia, The Informers undoes half of the good will of Anvil!, plus Control and What We Do Is Secret in the bargain. Heaven protect us from any more Bret Easton Ellis versions of Tales of the Empty Lives of Los Angeles.
It’s the Reagan era and also the age of AIDS, we’re continually reminded, and the valet parking lots and hotel boudoirs of Beverly Hills are filled with gel-conked stud muffins and muffettes, downing pills and staging orgies in a desperate attempt to forget their meaningless daily routines. Graham (Jon Foster) is the mixed-up son of movie-biz exec William (Billy Bob Thornton) and his ex-wife Laura (Kim Basinger). Graham hangs around with a spoiled brat pack of wan young men who all look like James Spader. One of them, eraser-coiffed Martin (Austin Nichols), is boffing Graham’s mother. Another, Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci), is forced to endure a vacation to Hawaii with his clueless dad (Chris Isaak). The rest make do with king-size-bed group gropes, the better to ease the pain of their existence.
Meanwhile, Graham’s father, William, lusts after a TV reporter named Cheryl (Winona Ryder, looking very grown-up) and, on the less fashionable side of town, hotel clerk Jackson’s (the late Brad Renfro) no-good brother Peter (Mickey Rourke) shows up uninvited for a stay with his wasted girlfriend Mary (Angela Sarafyan). Peter and Mary make a living cruising around in their van, and snatching little boys, who they sell. Into this mess flies the eponymous English rock band, led by debaucher-in-chief Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), who can barely stand on two feet, he’s so zonked. The Informers are in town for a concert and to shoot a rockvid (remember those?) that reeks of Duran Duran. Also to have group sex. All of the above are medicating all the time. They’re in a hell of a state.
If director Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers), screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki (The Outsider), or co-scenarist Ellis (on whose 1995 novel it’s based) had any sense of humor about the clichéd, fatuous things these characters were doing, it’s not evident. The Informers is one of 2009’s most unintentionally funny movies, a gruesome (but not gruesome enough) rehash of outrageous (but not outrageous enough) behavior from everyone’s least favorite decade. The era is regurgitated without the slightest sense of its ridiculousness. That seems to be the hallmark of novelist Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho), whose name has become synonymous with superficial candy-profundities about the degradation of the privileged class. Let’s forget all about Ellis, the 1980s, and The Informers, not necessarily in that order.