Anvil and Sacha Gervasi: 'When Are We Gonna Rock?'
Of all the heavy metal legends to ever cause a stir in Times Square, Anvil drummer Robb Reiner is likely the first to do so by drawing comparisons to Zorro. But there he was on 42nd Street, a few minutes removed from an interview on MTV -- resplendent in his customary black leather jacket and skullcap, from the latter of which spilled a coarse, jet-black mane of hair that caught the attention of schoolkids awaiting their Broadway matinees.
"Crazy," said Sacha Gervasi, the band's friend and former roadie, who took in the scene with Reiner's bandmate Steve "Lips" Kudlow. "Just fucking crazy."
Gervasi would know. Now a top-shelf Hollywood screenwriter, he reconnected with Reiner and Kudlow a few years back to make his documentary debut Anvil! The Story of Anvil (currently playing in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto). A tragicomedy that makes Spinal Tap look blessed by comparison, the film charts the bandmates' evolution from rags to better rags and, finally, some semblance of recognition over the last 30 years. Despite their professional misfortunes -- poor management, personnel crises and worse -- Anvil's speed, precision and utter wildness still became vital influences for some of the biggest headbangers of the '80s.
Featuring Metallica and Anthrax testimonials and footage from Anvil's less-than-stellar 2006 European tour, Gervasi builds a dynamic showcase for the band's unkillable character -- a monolith of patience and Quixotic resolve. Audiences and critics have swooned over the results since Anvil!'s Sundance '08 premiere; its $11,600 per-screen average was the nation's highest over Easter weekend. Movieline sought the trio's own impressions last week following their Times Square exploits.
The film has vastly expanded awareness of the band in the last year-plus since Sundance; I keep seeing Anvil! commercials on VH1. How has that changed each of your lives after decades in relative obscurity?
REINER: Personally it hasn't changed anything. I'm still the same guy. Everything else outside of us has changed, I guess, and it's given me more hope than I've ever had before in the ability to rock. It's all about rocking for me -- to get the band out there playing and stuff. [Gervasi laughs]
GERVASI: He's funny! When I said five fucking years ago I wanted to make a movie, he said, "OK, man. I don't care, so long as we can rock." I said, "Don't worry, you're gonna rock." He's been saying the same thing since I was a kid. "When are we gonna rock? Are we rocking?" That's the great thing about Anvil. There's just one theme: How do we play live? And what I said to these guys from the beginning was that hopefully the movie will be a way where people will get to know you in a completely separate way and create the market for people who want to see the band live. Some of the most successful showings of the film have been immediately followed by a live performance. It's these two best friends playing together. It's unreal.
REINER: It's metal Beatlemania.
GERVASI: With a lot less fans.
But your renaissance coincides with probably the lowest ebb of metal, the music industry and the entire global economy. There's obviously a very different kind of timing at work here.
GERVASI: It's been a slow build since Sundance. We basically thought, "Let's just screen the movie." It's our biggest weapon; people who see it tend to have a positive response. The cumulative effect is that people are frightened for the future, and suddenly, out of nowhere, come these best friends who've had this dream for 35 years to rock. To not give up. It's ultimately a story of perseverance and hope: If you just don't quit, then you allow for the possibility of something wonderful to happen. It couldn't be a better moment for us. A year ago they might not have wanted to hear this story. Now people are comparing it to Slumdog.
Robb and Lips, you guys are essentially brothers, on- and offstage. How did Sacha's camera reveal new or unfamiliar perspectives on that relationship?
KUDLOW: Nothing really changed that way either. I mean, Sacha's our friend. He's not going to do it to hurt us.
GERVASI: I went to Lips first and was just really honest with him. I said, "Look, you guys are fucking hilarious. You play your guitar with a dildo. He's called Robb Reiner. Not only couldn't we avoid Spinal Tap, we'd be stupid to try. We're really going to embrace that and use it to our advantage." I knew that if we did it right, people would go to a different place. They'd forget the long hair and the leather jackets and start to focus on two blue-collar guys with families and a dream, who are fucking doing it. And not for the money.
KUDLOW: You always tend to take things in your life for granted, including your friends. To a great degree, we've always been there for each other, so we're like, "So what?" But as we're going along now, we're finding that that we've got something that most people don't have. Most people don't remain friends with the guys they grew up with.
GERVASI: Yeah, most people don't make a pact to rock together forever at 14. And 40 years later are still doing it. This is not normal.
Nor is it common that their documentarian roadied with them when he was 15. In what ways did that history play into the filmmaking?
GERVASI: I got locked out of the tour bus a couple of times.
KUDLOW: Yeah, you're not gonna let a 15-year-old see some of the stuff that was going on. You just don't do that.
GERVASI: I think they felt really responsible for me, and they didn't want to be responsible if I got into trouble with drugs, for example. Which, later, I did. They felt really responsible for that, but the truth of the matter is that I was on my own crazy path. When we reconnected 20 years later and told them about it--
KUDLOW: What did we do? We corrupted a kid, you know?
GERVASI: But that was my world. I was this young, precocious English public school kid, and I was the only one who'd go to rock clubs. All my friends would go see the Clash. I'd be hanging out with Ronnie James Dio. I was a metal encyclopedia.
KUDLOW: That's what attracted us to Sacha to begin with: his incredibly vast knowledge of the genre. We thought, we've got to get to know this kid, because this is going to [provide] an indication of what people are listening to.
GERVASI: So despite all the other stuff, they felt really responsible for ruining me.
REINER: It's like he was going that way if we'd ruined him or not.
GERVASI: You have to not feel guilty about it anymore, dude.
REINER: You've made me feel better about it.
How long did that take?
KUDLOW: It wasn't until all these years later, and we started associating together again. We had to clear the air.
REINER: We'd wondered for more than a decade, "Where did our friend Teabag go?" For years and years we'd always wanted to know what happened to him.
So why did you stay away, Sacha?
GERVASI: I don't know. I got into different bands. I started playing drums and doing different things. Do you hang out with the people you did when you were 15? When you're 21, it's different. There was no specific thing that happened. I went to university, I went to law school. Then it was 20 years later, and I was like, "What the fuck happened to Anvil, man?"
Once you got back on the road with them, particularly during the nightmare European tour, how did the horrified Anvil fan in you reconcile with the great drama unfolding on camera?
GERVASI: I was just going, "Thank you, God," every single day. I wasn't feeling bad for them, because the one thing I know about Anvil is that they never quit. However bad it got, I knew they'd get through it. And Lips sums it up perfectly in the movie: "At least there was a tour for it to go wrong on." He could be going to work in Toronto, or he could be sleeping in an airport in Spain because they haven't got enough money to get to the next gig. He'd take that over sitting at home on the couch.
KUDLOW: Ninety percent of life is showing up, man.
GERVASI: But it was like gold for me. It was amazing cinema every day. Like Tiziana [Arrigoni, the band's European road manager]? I thought, "How can she be real?" If I had cast her, I couldn't have done it better. She's a mental case. Also, I'd seen it all before. It wasn't a shock.
Among all the inspirations in the film, I think the most profound may belong to Lips. To wit, what is the appropriate technique for playing guitar with a vibrator?
KUDLOW: Well, there's a couple things. The sound of the motor comes through the pick-ups. I have used variable speed vibrators, so it actually sounds like an engine revving. Aside from that, you can use it to just vibrate the strings; on a song like "Motor Mouth," it makes a sound like... [imitates slowly revving motor] Tune the guitar to a chord and just run it along the strings. Use it as a bottleneck, or tap it.
GERVASI: He hasn't done it in years. I'm hoping he brings it back.
REINER: There is a public outcry for it. I'm sure you'll see it again.