Robb Reiner is not easy to impress.
As the drummer for Anvil, the metal band he formed at age 14 with his friend, guitarist and singer Steve "Lips" Kudlow, Reiner has seen a lot. He's played for thousands of screaming, horns-throwing fans in enormous arenas. He's played for five people in shitty bars. (Over the past 20 years, he's probably spent a bit more time at the five-people-in-a-shitty-bar end of the spectrum.) You want to know how metal Robb Reiner is? "I don't listen to metal," he says. "It all sounds the same, I've heard it all before."
So how does he manage to, you know, play metal, if he doesn't like listening to metal? "We stay fresh because we have our own sound," he says. And as he talks to the Scene via cell phone, his band is the midst of a late-career revival, of sorts. After decades spent playing and recording in relative obscurity, Anvil are in Los Angeles—once the backdrop for a fruitless and dejecting record label search—waiting to head across town for an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which they'll follow with a plane ride to France for the Cannes Film Festival. They share a manager with Slayer and Mastodon. Several record labels have expressed interest in their next album—their 14th—Juggernaut of Justice. But to hear Reiner tell it, nothing's really changed.
"We're always going to rock," he says matter-of-factly.
The primary reason for all this new (if belated) attention is the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, directed with both humor and obvious affection by Sacha Gervasi, who as a teenager saw the band play the Marquee in London in 1982, becoming both fan and eventual roadie. "The movie was made so the story can be told, and it's opened the door," Reiner says, calling it "a genius piece of work." "I'm blown away by the response," he says. "It's a beautiful thing." In addition to punching the band's ticket to the French Riviera, the film has raised Anvil's profile considerably, if not exactly made them a household name. Not that Reiner cares much either way, so long as he can keep playing music.
"Our goal is just to rock and play live," he says. "That's what the journey is."
That journey—now some 30 years long—started in Toronto in the late '70s, when Reiner and Lips met and started playing music together. In 1982, they released what many still consider a watershed album, Metal on Metal. Faster, heavier and harder than anything that had preceded it, Metal was a breakthrough. It predates thrash metal classics like Metallica's Kill 'Em All (1983) and Slayer's Reign in Blood (1986). And yet, Anvil remains relatively unknown outside metalhead circles—though that's changing, thanks to The Story of Anvil.
The film opens with the band living out an '80s metalhead dream: In the midst of a Japanese arena tour with the Scorpions, Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, Anvil play to a seething mass of fans who chant their lyrics and go wild for their every move. (This is as good a time as any to mention that in this footage Lips is wearing a bondage harness and, at various points, pounds on his guitar with a dildo.) So why, after reaching such heights, didn't Anvil become one of the biggest bands in the world?
The Story of Anvil tries to address—even if it can't definitively answer—this very question. And it gets input from an impressive roster of metal heavyweights: Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Tom Araya (Slayer), Lemmy (Motorhead), Scott Ian (Anthrax) and Slash (Guns N' Roses) all cite the Toronto band as both genre-defining and hugely influential. So what kept Anvil from getting their due? It could be just a matter of "not being in the right place at the right time," as Lemmy suggests. It could be the cruel hand of fate. It could be the matter of other bands' ripping off their ideas and leaving them for dead. Or maybe it's all/none of the above. Whatever has kept the band from enduring fame and bountiful riches, the story of Anvil is both the story of Everyband and the story of everyone: One minute, you're living out your rock 'n' roll dreams; the next, you're inside a bleak Toronto winter, delivering cafeteria food for the local school system with a bunch of people who don't even know your band exists, much less understand its place in the metal pantheon.
An engaging and sometimes poignant tribute, Anvil! The Story of Anvil serves as both a moving portrait of friends and a study in the razor-thin line that separates keeping the dream alive from tilting at windmills. When the band receives an email from a woman who offers to manage them and then subsequently books them a tour, the excitement is palpable—and carries through to the warm reception at their first European metal festival. When things start to unravel on said tour, when money becomes a problem, when tensions within the band mount, when the guitarist starts dating the tour manager (who keeps screwing things up), when a fistfight nearly breaks out during a recording session—it all feels almost inevitable. But it also feels real and immediate.
In one segment, Lips—under enormous pressure and visibly stressed-out—blows up at Reiner, grabbing him by the shirt and pushing him against a wall. Reiner, for his part, says he's quitting the band, and walks off. "I've stayed dedicated, and for what?" he scowls. With their star apparently on the rise again, the two are suddenly irreconcilable. It's as if you're watching Behind the Music, only it's a band most people have never heard of. Asked if the showdown depicted in the film was out of character for the two friends, Reiner says it was. "We've been friends for 36 years. We've had maybe a half-dozen fights," he explains. "They happened to capture a couple on film."
What Gervasi also captures on film is how deep their friendship really is, and how much the band both defines and is defined by it. "Who's the closest person I've got in the world?" Lips asks Reiner rhetorically after their fight. And when, sizing up his own frustration, Lips declares, "There are cliffs I could jump off—that'd be the easy way," Reiner interrupts him. "Well, no, you won't jump off the cliff," he says. "Because I'll stop you."
All of this touchy-feely, break-up-and-make-up, behind-the-scenes-with-the-dysfunctional-musicians business might make you think of a certain other documentary about a heavy metal band whose members badly need hugs. Not so fast. "Some Kind of Monster shows a bunch of candy-ass wimps, who have a ton of money and need therapists to deal with each other," Reiner says. "With Anvil you have guys who don't have any money, but love each other, you know? The only parallel is that we're diametrically opposite."
Even so, since Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich goes on the record in The Story of Anvil as being a fan, and everyone from Lemmy to Slash agrees that Anvil should have been a much bigger band than they've managed (up to this point, anyway) to become, what if Metallica took them out on tour as an opening act? Wouldn't that be justice for all? It would be poetic. It would be karmic payback. It would be—or at least could be—the big break they've been waiting for all these years since their blip disappeared from the cultural radar.
"I don't really give a fuck, you know?" Reiner says. "If the movie hadn't happened, we would have still kept rocking."
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