In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the hair metalists. No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock (and/or roll) of cinema.
In this episode we’re going to take a look at two films following the story of two remarkably similar heavy metal bands. In one, a group who once tasted success find fame dwindling quickly in the early eighties, and seek to recapture their glory moment, with ill-fated tours, terrible venues with single-digit attendances, issues with management and record labels, creative fallings-out, and a finale saved by unanticipated success in Japan. This film also features Robb Reiner.
The other film is This Is Spinal Tap.
In many ways the films are hard to tell apart: really, it’s only the frankly bewildering lack of drummers dying by spontaneous combustion or in bizarre gardening accidents (best left unsolved) that separates the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap from the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
A little hyperbolic of course, though there are remarkable parallels between the two stories; but is that because Anvil’s story, through either veracity or editing, mirrors that of Tap, or is it just because This Is Spinal Tap put a comic spin on a common story in the world of music?
My mind fair boggles with the notion that there are people out there that haven’t seen, or at least heard, of This Is Spinal Tap, but I suppose the nature of humanity is that there’s about two hundred and fifty born every minute, none of whom, despite my repeated letters to the comptroller, have the genetic memory of watching Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockmentary. Government mandarins, man. You just can’t rely on them.
Michael McKean’s David St. Hubbins, and Christopher Guest’s Nigel Tufnel grew up together and formed a musical partnership that spans decades and several differing names, from “The Originals”, “The New Originals”, and “The Thamesmen”, scoring a few hits before finding their true calling. The band now known as “Spinal Tap” became the heavy metal monoliths of the seventies, although the eighties see their popularity on the wane.
The current iteration of Spinal Tap sees St. Hubbins on Lead Guitar, Tufnel on Lead Guitar As Well, Harry Shearer’s Derek Smalls on bass, David Kaff’s Viv Savage on keyboards and R. J. Parnell’s Mick Shrimpton as the latest in a long series of short-lived drummers. They’re starting a tour in America to promote their latest album, “Smell the Glove”, not yet in shops due to their indefensibly sexist cover art preferences, which their long-suffering manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) must try to resolve while keeping the band’s egos suitably massaged.
They’re joined on the tour by director Rob Reiner as director Marty Di Bergi, charged with capturing the band in the way many a hagiographic tour documentary of the time would, however the band are drawing less than a tenth of the audience they’d grown used to, and aren’t happy about it, causing some bickering that only intensifies when St Hubbins’ girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) shows up with her astrological charts and designs on becoming co-manager.
It doesn’t help that amongst the parodies of the rock star problems, like Tufnel’s struggle with miniature bread, everything else is failing too. Their record label doesn’t want to promote them. The venues aren’t just smaller, they’re roundly inappropriate for their music, and there’s a small problem with the dimensions of their set dressing. Fractures in the band grow as some semblance of reality penetrates their bubble, with their manager and eventually Tufnel quitting. The remnants resign themselves to suddenly having more time for discarded projects, like a Jack the Ripper musical, until fortuitously their latest classy single, Sex Farm, hits big in Japan, giving the tour a much needed second wind. Well, first wind, really.
As with most comedies, it’s less of a plot as it is a loose framework to explore the characters and, well, take the mickey out of them, and it’s tough to predict if it will chime with your particular sense of humour, dear listener. For what it’s worth, I think this is as funny a film as I’ve ever seen, and I don’t find that it gets any less funny any of the multiple times I’ve gone back to it.
Endlessly quotable, if you’re looking to annoy people, this affectionate parody of rock ‘n’ roll superstars is most certainly recommended.
Formed in Toronto in 1981 by high school friends Steve “Lips” Kudlow (guitarist), and Robb Reiner (drummer), Anvil reached the zenith of their career when they were one of the headliners of the Super Rock festival that toured Japan in 1984, alongside bands like Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Scorpions. While those other acts went on to sell millions of records, for some reason Anvil didn’t, despite, as attested to by the talking heads who populate the film’s opening, such as Motörhead’s Lemmy, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, being influential and well-regarded musicians and having helped to define that era of heavy metal music.
The band’s two main members (including a paltry ONE drummer in all of that time) remained together for the next three decades, and Anvil have, to date, recorded 16 studio albums. This documentary, though, produced and directed by Anvil fan (and their former roadie) Sacha Gervasi, follows the band as they worked towards the production of their thirteenth album, the imaginatively-titled This Is Thirteen.
As the film begins, we meet Lips and Robb and learn of their modest lifestyles, with Lips driving a van for a catering company and Robb working in the building industry. But that’s just how they pay the bills, and it’s clear that their true passion remains music, playing regular gigs to a small group of hardcore fans, which seems to nourish them creatively, but it’s clear they resent their lack of commercial success.
After a (seemingly out of the blue) tour is arranged for them by a fan, Tiziana Arrigoni, the band spend the summer in Europe, though nothing ever seems to be as it was promised, and the crowds, or lack thereof, are deeply disheartening. However, the relative failure of the tour does seem to spur them to improve the quality of their new album by hiring the late English record producer Chris Tsangarides, who had done a great job on their highly-regarded second album, Metal on Metal. The film follows them through the process of recording the album with Tsangarides, their moment of crisis and then their salvation, of a sort, by a call from Japan…
Steve and Robb are likable characters, and their dedication to the form makes it really easy to root for them. Coupled with the Tap-esque shenanigans, this is a very entertaining documentary and well worth seeking out.
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