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Of 'Anvil!' and steely resolve

Word of Mouth: Like the never-say-die metal band it depicts, the documentary keeps looking to break through, having excited film-festival passions.

April 09, 2009|John Horn

Even by Hollywood-premiere standards, Tuesday night's launch for the heavy metal documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" was particularly eclectic and electric.

At one end of the invited-audience spectrum were actor Dustin Hoffman and "Quantum of Solace" director Marc Forster, while at the other extreme were punk stalwart Henry Rollins and Velvet Revolver's Michael "Duff" McKagan. The evening's most memorable spectacle, though, came at the screening's conclusion, when the three-piece Anvil band started jamming, as hundreds of premiere guests -- including talent agents in suits -- jumped up and shouted out the chorus to "Metal on Metal," Anvil's pounding tribute to hard rock.

Wherever the documentary, about aging rockers who can't say quit, has played -- including last year's Sundance and Los Angeles film festivals, and other festivals and premieres around the world -- "Anvil" has generated an equally passionate reaction. The feedback is especially loud when the band takes the stage after the film, which opens Friday in three theaters in New York and Los Angeles with a few major cities to follow.

The question now is whether that moviegoing experience can be replicated in the nation's multiplexes. "Anvil" offers an almost perfect test of the so-called "Sundance effect" -- whether a movie can perform in the real world as well as it does among fervent festival-goers. In recent years, a number of movies have matched their festival reaction ("Little Miss Sunshine") while many others ("Hamlet 2") have not.

"We have bet our lives on it," Steve "Lips" Kudlow, Anvil's lead singer and guitarist, says of what rests on the film. "All of us."

Sacha Gervasi's documentary has been described fittingly as a real-life "This Is Spinal Tap," filmmaker Rob Reiner's fictional story about a band of middle-aged, rapidly fading dinosaurs of rock. Lips and drummer Robb Reiner (yes, that's his real name) met as teenagers and promptly formed their band, determined to become rock stars or die trying.

Just ahead of the heyday of heavy metal in the mid-1980s, Anvil stood on equal footing with such bands as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth. Lips' guitar licks and Reiner's drumbeats were the envy of several prominent metal acts, and fame seemed destined. But while many of its peers went on to worldwide prominence, Anvil didn't.

A screenwriter ("The Terminal," "The Big Tease") who was a teenage Anvil roadie, Gervasi was inspired in 2005 to track Lips and Reiner down, discovering that though the band never made it, the two longtime friends refused to abandon their childhood dream.

Gervasi found that although Lips and Reiner were old enough to be grandparents (Lips is 53, Reiner 50), they refused to stop playing -- even if their gigs were in bowling alleys. Gervasi decided to abandon his screenwriting career for a while and, using his own money, took a camera crew to follow Anvil on a troubled overseas comeback tour and a new album recording session.

The resulting film premiered at the Sundance festival in January 2008, and though the critical and audience response was white hot, the interest from possible theatrical distributors was ice cold.

"None of the major distributors would touch us," Gervasi says. "Fear had set in. Gone were the days of big documentaries like 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'March of the Penguins.' Every screening had a standing ovation, and distributors were saying, 'This is an impossible movie to sell.' We had two bullets in the head -- one, that we were a documentary, and two, that it was about music."

Gervasi decided to hold out, hoping for a deal that not only would bring "Anvil" to theaters, but also might include a national tour for the band, his hope when he first set out to make the film. "He said no to the deals that didn't feel right," says the film's producer, Rebecca Yeldham.

As weeks turned into months, Gervasi started to worry that maybe art was imitating life just a little too much: Just as Anvil had never taken off, so too was his movie fated to be almost famous? "Did I get stressed out? Yes. Did I start to lose hope? No," Gervasi says.

Whenever and wherever the film played -- London, Sydney, Jakarta -- the reaction was the same. And yet no deal was forthcoming.

"In some ways, it's like what happened with the band," Lips says. "We'd play somewhere, play the roof off, and the guy from the record label wouldn't show up."

Finally, in its first deal of this kind, the music channel VH1 stepped in. VH1 will show the documentary this summer and is helping to promote the film's theatrical release, distributed by Abramorama, and the seven-city Anvil tour. (The closest gig is a Sunday performance in San Francisco).

"You don't have to be a metal fan to love the movie," says Rick Krim, the VH1 executive vice president who brought the film in. "Metal can scare some people. But it's so much more than that."

Says Reiner of the film's prospects: "There is no template for this. We are just making it up as we go along. But right now, it's building and building."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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