The 2008 documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil was a slow-growing underground sensation. Its Rocky-like storyline was a winner: You found yourself cheering on the unlikely heroes, a couple of middle-aged Canadian heavy-metal musicians who'd been playing together since 1973. The movie detailed the ups and downs of their long-running band Anvil, formed in 1978. It was mostly about the downs. It shows the aftermath of Anvil's brief mid-'80s brush with fame — the dreary day jobs, no-glamour local gigs and a chaotic European club tour.
Singer-guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner are engaging subjects as they persist in the face of discouragement — not without occasionally butting heads. Even an opportunity to record again with noted producer Chris Tsangarides, who had produced their 1982 Metal on Metal album, has a disappointing ending when they're rebuffed by record companies and forced to distribute This Is Thirteen on their own. Yet the final scene — when the band walks onstage to play an early-morning slot at a Japanese festival, expecting an empty hall and finding the place packed — leaves a lump in your throat.
So does the real-life ending. As a result of the documentary, Anvil got a second wind. It gave them opportunities to tour, play festivals and open for AC/DC. It even landed them a contract with VH-1, which reissued This Is Thirteen in September. The band — which also includes bassist Greg Gyoffry, who's been with them since 1995 — kicks off 2010 with a show at Cleveland's House of Blues, the first date of a six-week U.S. tour that will be followed by late February dates in Australia. On most of the tour, billed as "The Anvil Experience," the band is opening for itself: It'll go onstage following a screening of The Story of Anvil. In Cleveland, however, local metal bands Destructor and Eternal Legacy will open.
Cleveland headbangers are plenty familiar with Anvil. According to Bill Peters — host of the WJCU 88.7 FM metal show Metal on Metal, named after the Anvil album — the band has played Cleveland more than any other city. They were last here in September 2007 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Peters' show.
Needless to say, things have changed dramatically for Anvil. According to Kudlow, he knew it would happen when director Sacha Gervasi, an established screenwriter who'd worked with Steven Spielberg, first approached him about doing the film. Gervasi was an old friend who'd roadied for the band in the '80s.
"The idea that the Spielberg guy was going to do this immediately told me it was going to be amazing," says Kudlow. "To me, making the movie the way we did was the essence of going after it. We could have said, 'no — no movie.' By saying yes, it meant we had to do everything we can to make it successful."
That meant booking a European tour that had its share of problems, including several under-attended gigs and a missing tour bus that forced them to travel by train and camper van. But Kudlow said it wasn't quite as depressing as it looked in the film.
"The antics on that tour were unbelievable," he says. "But at the end of the day, we didn't lose any money. Yes, there were gigs where no one showed up — well, not no one but just a few people. You can see that some of the gigs were packed. Lots of those gigs were uneventful. But what are you going to film if everything goes smoothly? To me it seems fairly accurate though, and I'd be the first to complain."
Although he had a good feeling in his bones about the film, it really hit Kudlow that they might be onto something when it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008.
"It was unbelievable, man," he says. "I'd seen the finished product but never with an audience, so I had no real conception as to what effect it would have. At the end of the movie, people were cheering and clapping. When we were called up to the front, we got a standing ovation. I'm going, 'What's going on? I haven't played a note and everybody's cheering.' I think at that moment the whole thing really began."
Now, band members have given up their day jobs, and Kudlow says not only do they devote full time to the band, but they're also making a living from it for the first time.
"Ultimately that's all the goal is — let me make a living doing what I love," he says. "I don't have to deliver food. It's amazing, actually. Not making it the first time around was really just circumstances. It had nothing to do with talent or ability or anything like that. What I felt was because of having the ability and the talent, the thing fell into place and we got another chance. So I truly believed it would happen again."