Guitarist Steven "Lips" Kudlow has a dream: to see his band, Anvil, achieve arena-level stardom.
How does a music group with so much steam behind it head straight for obscurity? And why won't Kudlow just give up? Those questions drive the big-haired, big-fun documentary, "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," screening Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Its title may ring needlessly redundant, but its contents are a wonderful respite from Hollywood's end-of-summer slate.
Anvil's origins date back to the 1970s high school days of Kudlow and drummer/surrogate brother Robb Reiner. The first song they wrote together was called "Thumb Hang," about the Spanish Inquisition: "Thumbs will twist / Can you resist?"
Despite such lyrical wizardry and a knack for playing guitar with a dildo, Anvil — true to its name — plummeted. When director Sacha Gervasi — a one-time Anvil roadie, and later the screenwriter of Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" — catches up with the guys, Kudlow works for a company that assembles school lunches, while Reiner toils in construction. Neither is quite willing to let go of the notion that Anvil could bloom late into a Monster of Rock, even if record company execs aren't falling over themselves to sign middle-aged men tied down by families and mortgages.
Enter Tiziana Arrigoni. She wants to be Anvil's manager and send them on a "world tour." A lesson Kudlow soon learns: Just becomes someone sends you an e-mail — complete with Glamour Shot photo attachment — that they want to represent you doesn't mean you should let her.
To say the resulting tour is disastrous is an understatement, much of it stemming from the manager's language barrier. For Arrigoni, English seems to be a sixth or seventh language; worse, common sense doesn't appear to be coursing through her veins. She fails to make them train reservations, so they miss trips at least twice.
In Prague, they get lost and show up two hours late to a gig. They play, but afterward, the club owner refuses to pay them, because of their tardiness; shouts, shoves and threats ensue. The biggest kick to the ego nuts is taken in Transylvania, where Anvil headlines a rock festival in an indoor venue that can seat 10,000 fans ... and 9,826 of those seats remain empty.
With the band unable to catch a break, comparisons to the classic hard-rock mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap" are not only inevitable, but shoved in your face, starting with Reiner's sharing a name with that 1984 film's actor/director. While snaking through labyrinthian halls to make their way to the stage, the boys shout, "Hello, Cleveland!" At one point, they visit Stonehenge. Hell, a close-up of an amp shows its knob being cranked up to 11.
You need not be a fan of heavy metal to become one of "Anvil!" In fact, the less you like the music, the more you may enjoy the movie — you'll get a bigger kick out of the atrocious hairstyles, the leather outfits, the over-the-top vocals. Whereas metal maniacs may view the concert sequences as just that, others may delight in the over-the-top theatrics.
Part of that appears to be on purpose. Gervasi shrewdly makes you laugh at the boys behind Anvil before making you care for them. At first, I wasn't convinced the film wasn't all a well-executed hoax. But slowly, as stoner exteriors melt away to reveal honest hearts and noble intentions, the objects of ridicule becomes objects of sympathy, and the audience wants Kudlow and Reiner to grab that brass ring, however insurmountable. When they get a chance, internal tension threatens to blow it. They're genuinely good guys who just have bad luck.
As pop-culture documentaries go, "Anvil!" doesn't quite rocket into the feel-good stratosphere of "The King of Kong," but it makes a valiant effort. For all its rock-star dreams and desires, it's really a story about family — how having others believe in you allows you to believe in yourself.
To quote Kudlow, "That's dedication, pal." —Rod Lott