Anvil! the Story of Anvil, a real-world Spinal Tap documentary that will have you laughing, crying and rocking out

The 2007 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil is one of the most wonderful movies I've seen in years. It tells the true story of heavy-metal semi-legends Anvil, a band formed by two Jewish kids from Toronto's suburbs when they were 14, and which they've kept going to this day, as both men edge up on 60.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil has a very weird relationship with This is Spinal Tap (for starters, Anvil's drummer is named Robb Reiner!): the movie is shot through with scenes that are almost line-for-line remakes of Tap, as when the boys sit around a deli recounting their early song "Thumbscrew," composed after a history class about the Spanish Inquisition. And the Anvil boys are very likeable heavy-metal doofuses: they play suburban Toronto venues for die-hard fans -- other middle-aged rockers who can drink a bottle of beer through one nostril while throwing devil-horns and chanting Satanic metal lyrics.

But there's lots of pathos and heart here too: Lips, the lead singer, is an artist who's given up everything to pursue his dreams. Instead of getting an education and a good job -- like his brother and sister, both middle-class, respectable types -- he drives a truck for a catering company that provides school lunches. He's a heavy metal god in a hairnet, pulling minimum wage delivering bananas and tuna casserole.

But Anvil was nearly great in their heyday. The movie opens with them playing the 1984 Super Rock in Japan, sharing a stage with The Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi (the movie also features interviews with successful metalheads like Slash, Lars Ulrich and Lemmy, singing the praises of Anvil). These bands go on to greatness. Anvil -- plagued by bad management and crappy label support -- have been stuck in the snowy Toronto suburbs, the children of holocaust survivors, doing all that they can to reassure their doubtful (but loving) families that they aren't wasting their lives.

And Anvil's members aren't willing to give up on their dreams. They go on a European tour booked by an insane (but clearly dedicated) fan who appoints herself their manager. Their gigs are often disastrous, and they go home with nothing in their pockets and go back to work at their day-jobs.

But they persevere. They sacrifice everything, they risk their friendships and their families, they risk homelessness, and they never, ever stop. Lips spends a lot of the movie in tears, or feuding with Robb, and it's clear that he's half-mad with this boyhood dream that's grown to take over his life.

Somehow, the bathos and pathos add up to a moving tribute to the human spirit. For every scene in which Lips rocking out on stage with his flying-vee (he uses a dildo as a slide and wears a bondage harness), there's a matching scene, like the one in which his loving, bourgeois older sister fronts him the money to record the band's next album.

It's a wonderful movie, one that'll have you laughing with a tear in your eye. And you know what? Anvil's music is pretty badass. That thirteenth album they're recording in the second act is wicked (my wife texted me from bed, as I was watching it late last night: TOO LOUD. BED TIME NOW. THAT SONG'S QUITE GOOD).

Anvil! The Story of Anvil


(Thanks, Danny!)


  1. Great documentary. Much like Fugazi’s “Instrument,” this movie had me wishing I played in a band again within 30 minutes of it starting.

  2. I loved this film. Having grown up in Oshawa, Ontario and recorded a few songs in the studio that Anvil used in the 80s (Quest Studios, in one of the sketchiest parts of town), I felt deeply empathetic towards these guys.

    After my partner and I watched it, she said, “You know why they didn’t make it? Because they’re hosers. Beautiful, loveable hosers, and not metal gods.”

    And that’s not an insult — in fact, it’s a sort of accolade, because they seem to have achieved some kind of hoser perfection. The sweetness, the hopefulness and trust they place in people rolling them, the band toques, the brotherly bond, is their undoing. It’s literary and wonderful. It made me feel proud to be from the GTA — a very rare thing, to be sure — by celebrating a noble identity that is pretty underrepresented in People’s Ideas About Canadians.


  3. Ha ha. I went to the Houston, TX premiere of this and the band came out after the movie and played a couple of songs. The theater was only half full. A friend of a friend was helping them with their Texas tour/promotion for this film. I knew they were going to play at the premiere and I kept looking online for information. Apparently, these guys wanted their appearance to be a surprise so there was no promotion. They should have had a packed house. I think this kind of action shows the film tells a good story. They are a bunch of good hearted guys that don’t always make the best business decisions.

  4. While I’m glad for Anvil’s recent success, as a long time fan I have mixed feelings about them getting popular because of this documentary – not because they don’t deserve it, but because I have a feeling people might be enjoying it for the wrong reasons. Still, if it gets Anvil more serious fans who actually enjoy the music on its own merits, that can’t be a bad thing.

    Anyone interested should check out their 1983 album “Forged in Fire”, which is generally considered their best.

    Never break it, it will never bend
    The Anvil was forged in fire

  5. I went to a screening in Atlanta last year. Once the movie was done, they ushered us into the theater next door, where Anvil PLAYED for us! It was freaking amazing. Those guys were incredible. After they played we all went to the bar next door and they drank beer with us and hung out. Very humble and gracious and appreciative of having another opportunity. “THIS IS 13!”

  6. I’d never heard of Anvil before viewing the documentary. Their story is so compelling and endearing-I think it matters not a bit if their recent success is partially due to the movie. The fact is the guys never gave up on the dream. They’ve worked harder than most would in the face of adversity and diminishing odds and they’ve come out doing what they always wanted to do. What an inspiration they are to anyone who has ever put all of their heart into their life’s work. What impresses me most about them (and the filmmaker who documented their struggle) is the essential goodness of these men-their real love and respect for the work and for each other. They rock.

  7. Anvil is currently on a US tour. Last Thursday (1/21/2010) I saw them at the House of Blues in Orlando. The premise of the tour was that they were going to show the movie & then have the band play, however, they’ve gotten tremendous feedback that people have already seen the movie & want more of the band playing live–so that’s what they are doing. The show was AMAZING. Everything you see in the movie is exactly how they are in real life. And everyone at the show found that out because Lips announced mid show between songs that they were going to come out & shake hands with every person in the house. And they did. Ticket prices were more than reasonable & there were VIP packages for sale for a pre-show meet & greet.


  8. I was actually disappointed in this documentary. So much of it felt contrived. Lips and the drummer look like they’re acting through most of it

  9. I’m surprised this took so long to hit your radar, Cory. These boys ARE Canadian, like you and me. :)

    THIS MOVIE IS WONDERFUL. These lovable schlubs have a unique friendship and it shows through every bit of the movie. My former bandmate and I watched it and we couldn’t help but feel a complex mix of adoration and just plain feeling sorry for these guys going through the SHIT they go through because they LOVE TO ROCK!

    Rent this movie! and if you EVER get the chance to, even if it’s not your bag, go see them in concert!

  10. Speaking of weird coincidences, I just watched this movie and sat down right now to do a little research on what has happened to the band since the film- only to be googled straight to Corey’s BOING BOING post, which I would have undoubtedly seen later on today, anyway. Cosmic?

    ANVIL was everything Corey said, though what struck me hardest was that, though it originally seemed like a “real-life Spinal Tap” along the lines of AMERICAN MOVIE and KING OF KONG, it actually was quite different; I never got the sense that the filmmaker was ridiculing them, even a little, the way the nerds and geeks were in those other films. By the end, you’re so taken with the characters’ passion that you realize this is the perfect example of the artistic spirit, determined to ignore EVERYTHING reality is saying to them in order to realize their dream. The obvious scenario is that the film should be full of ironic humor, showing a couple of washed-up 50-year olds clueless about how much of a joke they seem to be, but far from coming off ironically, ANVIL makes it clear that they still have something to say in that genre, and that their music wasn’t a fluke- I’m still confused why they didn’t make it big, if they clearly were getting press and had the chops to back it up. All I can think of is that the guys are way too sweet-natured and naive to have capitalized on opportunities they might have had, which is sad- apparently, to make it one has to be not only talented but shrewd as well. It’s not like they even had a niche that kept them going- they are truly slumming it (though I’m sure the film has changed that, at least temporarily.)

    While the marketing goes for the obvious- “you’ll never believe these clueless metalheads are for real!” the actual film is full of compassion and understanding of what an artist has to go through to do what they are driven to do.

    My only question- the production values of the film were all over the map and made me wonder if any of it was staged. Sometimes it’s just a guy with a cheap camera shooting poorly-composed, off-the-cuff video, but other times there’s steadycam shots on HD; more importantly, often the camera is perfectly set up to capture seemingly-spontaneous moments, so either the director & crew were literally living with the guys every second (a long time given how much the film covers) or something is amiss in terms of it being a “documentary”. Still, it’s a great story, no matter how manipulated it may have been.

    Thanks, Corey! I’m still reeling from the film, too!

    1. Check out some of the behind the scenes info. The director was actually a teenaged fan of the band back in their “heyday”. He actually spent time with them on tour as a kid.

      He looked them up after becoming a semi-successful filmaker and decided to do a doc on them. He *did* practically live with them during the doc, which is how he got the footage. And none of it was staged or tinged with ridicule, he’s probably one of their biggest fans and did the entire thing in hopes of getting them the attention he felt they always deserved.

    1. It’s funny, I watched the documentary on Anvil on Sunday, and was surfing the Austin Americans Statesman’s site Monday night and realized Anvil was in town and going on in, oh, about 15 minutes. If it wasn’t 4 days before pay day, I would have gone and gotten me a piece of the Anvil, but I have to wait until next time.

  11. Anvil is the metal equivalent of dinosaurs in the valley that time forgot. Their sound is straight out of the 80’s, but they avoid the quad-necked guitars and screeching vocals that make all of us look back on the decade with regret.

    I’d like to see them have some success, but I think their lack of success has made them better. There’s no pressure to update their sound, for which I am glad because the results sound pure and honest.

    Their lyrics are hilarious as well. Without fail the title of the song is going to be the words they chant during the chorus. The verses rarely tell a story, they’re almost entirely two line rhymes that have a relation to the song title. No hidden meanings from these guys.. the words are just there to keep time with the rocking.

  12. Having watched the movie with a sympathetic eye, the most striking thing about the whole “band that almost made it but for a string of bad luck” myth is the fact that their music is just awful.

    The entire time I was watching the movie I couldn’t help thinking who is surprised that these guys didn’t make it?”, and wondering if I wasn’t missing an entire meta-level of in-joke…

    Did this band even really exist before this movie? Are all these people that “remember” and loved Anvil just dupes with false memories implanted by this mockumentary, or are they all in on a big gag? The alternative – that anyone thinks this music is anything other than crap, even by the standards of the time – is too difficult to believe and makes my head hurt more than the music itself.

  13. I just saw it a couple of weeks ago and loved it too. The movie it reminded me of (even more than Spinal Tap) is The Wrestler. As mannered and commodified as their art may be, these guys are artists. And unlike so many of their more successful peers, they’re not douche bags. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they still harbor dreams of glory, but they wouldn’t step on anyone to get there anymore–which makes it all the more satisfying that they are enjoying their belated apotheosis.

  14. The song is Thumb Hang and it rocks pretty hard.

    Thumbs will twist.
    Can you resist?
    Beware the names on the inquisitor’s list!

  15. Your wife was texting from MY bed, where I wore her like a skin tuxedo and sank her with my pink torpedo! hAhAhA!

  16. @das memsen – if you noticed, the filmmaker was a longtime fan of theirs. if that’s not devotion to one’s favorite band, i don’t know what is.

    1. No, no, I realize he’s a huge fan- that’s why the film works sincerely. But he’s also a professional in the biz, having written big hollywood blockbusters- you can tell by lots of the shots, not to mention the way he interviews Lars Ulrich in the dvd extra. Bottom line is, you have to tell a good story or no one will watch your film, and he’s savvy enough to know how to set up a shot and stage drama. Lots of the shots in the film were way to perfectly composed for me to believe he just “happened to be filming”- which is not to say the film is untrue or fake, simply that there’s a fine line all documentarians ride, and I was just curious where, on the line, this film fell.

  17. Even if you loathe Heavy Metal music watch this film. My wife — who can’t stand “cacophonous sounds” — cried at this film In her words: “It’s a tragic love story about two starry eyed dreamers”. She will never go see Anvil live (pity) — but she sat through two screenings of this film. It’s a fantastic documentary in its own right. I absolutely loved it.

  18. Earlier this week, I made the mistake of watching it just before going to bed…
    …and then staying up a little later to watch all the extras because the film was so damn good….
    …and then decided to watch a bit of it with the commentary (director, Lips and Rob)…
    …and then ending up watching the whole thing again because hearing them relive and discuss every scene adds a whole other layer to the movie (I highly recommend re-watching it with the commentary!)…

    …but whatever you do, don’t start watching it at midnight and end up finally hitting the hay at 5:00am when you have to go to work at 9:00. :)

  19. Great movie, but seriously… their music is just plain terrible. I mean, they’re very good technically at playing their instruments but their arrangements are bland (watered-down AC/DC style stuff) and their lyrics are laughably bad.

    1. Heavy metal doesn’t work if the lyrics aren’t the kind of thing you’d find scribbled in the notebook of a junior highschool kid in the 80s.

      Lyrical depth is something for prog rock, not metal. Even with Iron Maiden, who *try* for some meaningful lyrics, their best songs are stuff like Fear of the Dark, which is as described on the box.

      Putting personal meaning into metal leads to St. Anger, and no one wants to go there.

      1. Not true, not true- Stryper had some pretty brilliant lyrics going on with their double-entendre songs. Their songs could have been interpreted two ways, either written for a girlfriend, or for God himself- that’s the kind of subtlety only achievable in metal.

        I think you meant to say “Lyrical depth is something YOU’LL NEVER FIND IN prog rock…”

        Shining, flying, purple wolfhound? Caesar’s Palace, Morning Glory? Really?

      2. You and das memsen are both right; for the style of metal Anvil play, deep and introspective lyrics are not appropriate, but that by no means prohibits their use in metal at large (check out Fates Warning).

        People who think all music needs to be lofty or intellectual are missing out on a big part of life. You can’t eat haute cuisine every day; sometimes the human body just wants a really good hamburger, and that’s exactly what Anvil is.

        1. That’s fair. I do tend to stay away from metal that tries to sound intelligent because when you have to try….

          That doesn’t mean metal lead singers can’t be intelligent. I still love reading the transcript of Dee Snider’s testimony at the senate commerce committee hearings dredged up by the PMRC.

          Mr. SNIDER. Excuse me. Are you going to tell me you are a big fan of my music as well?

          Senator GORE. No, I am not a fan of your music. I am aware that Frank Zappa and John Denver cover quite a spectrum, and I do enjoy them both. I am not, however, a fan of Twisted Sister and I will readily say that.

          I don’t know why that makes me laugh every time I read it. I can’t picture Mr. Gore rocking out to anything. I have trouble picturing him listening to Zappa. Not John Denver, though. The whole hearing is full of unintentional comedy.

  20. Wohooo!! I thought Anvil didn’t exist anymore.
    I still have two records by them (yep, records) I bought in the early 80s, they definitely rocked at that time. I’m totally curious to hear what they did afterwards.
    Their cover of “paint it black” by the Rolling Stones is about fifty times better than the original.

    Me wants this video!

  21. It’s a well-made film even if some of the shots were (re)staged. Smartly-made for sure.

    As a film and TV guy I watched it with commentary and did some homework on the director, Sacha Gervasi (who wrote The Terminal screenplay). I think that he was initially just smart enough to see a great topic and two interesting subjects and took it from there.

    I think Anvil: The Story of Anvil is kind of like King of Kong, which started as a much broader retro gaming doc and in the editing room the creators realized that they had stumbled onto a gold mine with Steve Weibe and Billy Mitchell. Documentary filmmaking requires a huge up-front info and footage gathering step and if that doesn’t end up telling a really compelling story the film falls flatter.

    I couldn’t believe these guys weren’t acting (the way you wonder about Grizzly Man) sometimes. If they were they’re so good at it that it doesn’t matter.

    Truthfully I believe that they excel at being themselves. They had nothing to lose and showing the tension and emotion of the band is probably the result of their long history and ability to simply roll with everything life has dealt them.

    I respect that Anvil sounds wicked tight even thought I’m just not into the lyrics and heavy metal.

  22. ANVIL ROCKS SO HARD I literally chipped a tooth just watching this film.

    Everyone needs some Anvil in their life.

  23. I saw this movie about a month ago. Through the opening half-hour or so I became convinced this was a Spinal Tap-style mockumentary, to the extent that we paused the movie to Google them and ascertain that this was for real.

    I was still seeing them as somewhat lovable goons up until the interview with Lips’s sister. She’s sitting in her comfortable, suburban home, discussing his music career with nothing but love and admiration, and I noticed that she never called him a “musician: she called him an “artist,” and called the music his “art.”

    Somehow, that totally changed how I was viewing the movie. By the end of it I’d gotten choked up a few times over witnessing two men’s singleminded devotion to art.

    It’s clear that Anvil will never make it big at this point; the music industry doesn’t favor people that old, and frankly, their style doesn’t seem to have evolved a bit since the 80s. On some level, Anvil must know this, but they don’t give up; they keep rocking, because that’s what they do. Giving up just isn’t an option for these guys.

    I was moved and inspired by the movie, in much the same way I was by “American Movie” (to which I clearly had a very different response than das memsen did).

  24. So I just checked iTunes, since I’m pretty sure these guys have never been released on vinyl or CD in New Zealand. And there’s what looks like tons of back catalog! Ray! Big ups for long tail marketing!

    Then I clicked on a few of iTunes’ 30 second sound-clip preview thingies. And now I understand why I’ve never heard of these guys before. Sigh.

  25. One has to keep in mind that this is 80’s metal, not jazz, not ambient dub, not lo-fi indie art rock or anything like that. The point is that, relative to this genre and their peers, Anvil is pretty damn good. I’m not much of a metal fan, but I am a musician and I appreciate craft when I hear it. Anvil has craft and talent- it’s only their vision and aesthetic sense that you can dispute, but then you’d have to apply that to almost EVERYone in the metal scene. I mean, come on, 80’s metal is 80’s metal. There’s no point in pointing out the obvious formulaic elements here. But given that this is where we are, it’s amazing how good their hooks are, how tight their drumming is, and how vibrant their new songs are despite being as old as they are. Metallica lost it a LONG time ago, and while Anvil never reached the quality of Metallica, they also haven’t turned into commercial boredom, either. Compare them to any of the successful bands of their era- Winger? Dokken? These guys are way better. It’s not just hype and buzz from the film- they clearly put on a good show, which is why they exist- not to challenge your musical boundaries.

  26. I saw this in our local art cinema about four months ago. It made me cry, no joke. It is really inspirational that it shows how if you love to do something, it does not matter if no one shows up to watch. Rocking out is all Lipps likes to do. He works in a commercial kitchen to support his dream. More power to them. They rock the doors of any of these modern one hit wonders with their autotuned voices.

  27. I rented this film because I had erroneously been told it was a mockumentary. And I didn’t get clued in until the end — it had everything I was expecting in a mockumentary, including the amp going up to 11.

    The music was good, but the film was full of every rock film cliche known to man. Don’t waste your time on the film, just get an album or two and groove to the music.

  28. But they preservere.

    They must have been inspired by Dubya during “Perseverance Month” in Jan. 2000:

    “This is Preservation Month. I appreciate preservation. It’s what you do when you run for president. You gotta preserve”

  29. Spinal Tap is up for two Grammies tomorrow (Messrs Guest, McKean and Shearer)

    Spinal Tap’s ‘Back from the Dead’ was nominated for Best Comedy CD

    The second nom: Best Packaging. video: (good for MAKE fans)

    Disclosure: at various times I have been webmaster for Harry Shearer and Spinal Tap

  30. I…I can’t believe I knew about something cool Before Cory! Moreover something cool and CANADIAN before Cory. Bedlam!!!!

  31. I read the bit about Cory’s wife texting him, and a shiver of recognition ran though me; Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye Berlin features a family who behave – within the technological contraints of the time – very similarly.

  32. OK, what is going on with this band? I just heard of them online today via StumbleUpon, and when I went to see if they’re playing in town any time soon, they’re playing tonight. This could be part of their problem. Every time someone hears about them, they’re playing in town that night, and there’s no time to make plans. Weird. After reading the comments here before I checked the tour schedule, I almost knew what was going to happen. Phoenix, AZ, Feb. 2, 2009

  33. This movie made me cry. These guys have to be the most unlucky bastards in the hole history of Rock’n’roll, and the KEPT AT IT for 30 friggin’ years. Truly inspiring.

  34. I’d say, for anyone who things their music is “terrible” really hasn’t given it a chance (or doesn’t like metal). Listen to some of their older tunes.. like any of their albums from the 80’s. It’s as good as anything coming out of metal in that era. I think over the years Lip’s voice has suffered and gotten a bit strained, but back in the 80’s they sounded amazing. I think it would be amazing if these guys would tour with Motorhead, another band that never got the recognition it deserved but keeps on ticking after almost 40 years.

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