Anvil! The Story of Anvil
I accidentally went to my first heavy metal concert last week. As a subscriber to the Secret Cinema mailing list, I receive messages once a month notifying me of a mystery film screening at a mystery location. Those who buy tickets find out where to meet and receive hints about the secret identity of the film. There is always a dress code (like 1980s or Old School Rock), and a request to bring along a certain accessory (such as a torch or a flag).
As this month’s film was rock-music related, and the year 1984 was mentioned, it seemed that the organisers had made the mystery film too easy to guess: the murmurs in the queue at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire all agreed that the film was the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Shortly before the crowds entered the theatre, a red van pulled up outside, smoke effects began, and a caricatured bunch of pseudo rock stars jumped out, exulting in the screaming and cheering coming from the press of ticket holders. Inside, following a mercifully short heavy metal performance by a young band, the compère announced that the secret film was not, in fact, Spinal Tap, but rather the UK premiere of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a Canadian heavy metal group that never quite made it.
The film’s opening was reminiscent of the sort of comedy trailer that establishes an expectation and overturns it for comic effect. On-screen text filled in for the voice of the familiar stentorian announcer: “Japan 1984… at a concert attended by thousands, the most famous heavy metal bands in the world all came together… all went on to achieve fame… except one.” In talking-heads interviews, a selection of aging heavy metal stars gave their opinions about Anvil and why it never became successful. It was not a question of talent, which the group indisputably possessed, but one of luck. Success, they agreed, depends much on “being in the right place at the right time”.
The documentary’s persuasive originality stems from its humorous and earnest portrait of failure. The film shows the band members laughing at themselves, but it also satirises the band as a washed-up group, one in which egos render the members unable to accept that they will never be stars. After the opening, which shows Anvil during its 15 minutes of fame, the second scene reveals the lead, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, as he is now: a middle-aged man, his long hair hidden beneath a knitted winter hat, blathering on in excessive detail about his job delivering school dinners. Punctuating such interviews was archival footage that showed Kudlow playing his guitar with a sex toy as his avian facial features protruded from a cloud of long curly hair. Young, skinny and bare-chested apart from a leather bondage harness, he mugged to the audience in a way that made him seem silly rather than tough.
Astonishingly, Kudlow and his lifelong friend, Anvil drummer Robb Reiner, have refused to wallow in boring jobs and self-pity. They instead have held on to their dreams of metal stardom. The documentry follows them as they seize offers to tour Europe (albeit for disappointingly small audiences), return to Japan more than 20 years after their last concert there and borrow money from their families to record a 13th album.
After the credits rolled, live heavy metal music began again: a spotlight fell on Steve “Lips” Kudlow in the flesh, playing his electric guitar from one of the balcony boxes. The audience that had laughed at him so many times in the film erupted in cheers and applause as he joined the other two members of Anvil on stage. As the band’s 1980s logo flashed red and white behind them, Anvil, a group that most audience members likely had never heard of before that day, and would not normally have wanted to hear, was almost adored.
Most films are simply made for the cinema, but director Sacha Gervasi said in a Lovefilm interview  that with Anvil! his intention had always been to surprise the audience with a live performance like the one for Secret Cinema. For this surprise to have maximum effect, he said that he strove to “create this mystery in the film about the band”. It seems appropriate, then, for Secret Cinema to host the UK premiere of an unknown film about an unknown band. For Secret Cinema audiences, themed screening locations, the re-creation of sets, the presence of actors who imitate characters from the film and, of course, much-vaunted secrecy deconstruct the barrier between screen and real space, immersing the viewer in the world of the film and manipulating expectations.
Secret Cinema was founded by Fabien Riggall, who wanted to offer a multi-sensory experience as a marvellous alternative to the multiplex, with its standard soulless atmosphere and restricted selection of films. Since 2007, Secret Cinema’s organisers have screened a diverse range of surprise films, from the Audrey Hepburn classic Funny Face (1957) to the premiere of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park (2007). Though Secret Cinema began in London, parallel events now take place in Brighton and periodically in other cities across the UK. Whatever the film and location, Riggall has made it his mission to re-establish the magic and excitement of going to the cinema, and judging by comments from audience members, he has been successful: they are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the element of mystery, and love dressing up for cinema as an event.
Perhaps the most fundamental trait linking Anvil and Secret Cinema fans, then, is their devotion to art for its own sake. For Steve Kudlow and Robb Reiner, fame and financial success are but distant dreams, yet if they never realise those dreams, they will not have failed: their true passion is playing metal ,and that is what they have spent their lives doing. Similarly, Secret Cinema audiences naturally hope that the mystery film will be to their taste; yet those who choose to go to such an event are unlikely to be disappointed, as they tend to be motivated by a love of cinema in all its variety. That is why, in spite of the specific cult following of this type of music, Secret Cinema’s organisers could be confident that a heavy metal documentary would be a pleasant surprise for the audience. The audience left the theatre having warmed to the eccentric verve of Steve “Lips” Kudlow and his bandmates; they were glad to have heard and seen the unknown.
Alison Frank is in her final year of a DPhil in Modern Languages at Keble College, Oxford, where she is specialising in surrealism in French and Czech cinema.