Performance and the Pursuit of Stardom in Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Curator's Note

Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), about a Canadian metal band active from the late 1970s to present, covers a much less popular group than most rock-docs. Widespread fame is well past the reach of middle-aged frontman Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow (guitar/vocals) who continues to perform and record. Anvil: The Story of Anvil presents a sympathetic portrait of this energetic, would-be star.

The film opens with a performance at a large metal festival in the mid-80s, when it was possible that the band could make it big. This blurry, unrestored VHS footage is followed by shots of Kudlow in his current-life. He delivers lunches for a food service company, driving an old van and pulling large coolers across snowy schoolyards. Yet, despite the fact that Kudlow has not achieved broad popularity, he continues to pursue musical stardom. Kudlow solicits identification from the audience as a liminal figure in the music world. He is a fan, still, as much as a performer. Midway through the film, the band lands a break and is able to perform (albeit at a very early hour) at a large metal festival in Sweden. The backstage interview with Kudlow plays humorously against rock-doc expectations. Rather than discussing his own performance or coolly relaxing, the small-time frontman searches eagerly for legitimate stars, rushing to greet more famous performers who are flustered by his enthusiasm.

When Kudlow makes a case for the transcendent quality of his musical performance it is in a much more intimate context. In the clip included here, Kudlow plays a show, his own birthday party, at a Toronto-area bar for around 100 people. Long-time fans attest that Kudlow himself delivers purchased albums and shirts to their homes. Kudlow enthuses about such performances as “beautiful moments, human moments when you are in the same room as the people that love you.” The scene evokes both sympathy and admiration for the same reasons: that Kudlow will not forsake his nearly impossible ambitions and that he finds so much enjoyment even at this modest moment in his performing career.

Comments

Landon Palmer's picture

On Rock Docs of "Would Be" Stars

Thanks for this post, Jesse. I particularly enjoy your approach at making sense of Kudlow’s liminal place between musical stardom and fandom as he, one the one hand, aspires to what we might recognize as more conventional musical stardom while performing for a small but dedicated fan base while, on the other hand, acting as a fan for conventional rock stars and working as a direct distributor of his own fan ephemera.

It seems to me that there’s been something of an emergent sub-genre recently in rock documentaries about similar “would-be” stars. At the risk of generalizing, I’d categorize Searching for Sugar Man, A Band Called Death, and 20 Feet from Stardom as similar to Anvil! in that they all function as what you call “sympathetic portraits” of talented musicians (who are also, in some cases, described as musical innovators) worthy of the fame others have achieved. Yet the machinery of the music industry somehow let them fall into obscurity, only to be resurrected by documentaries like these that highlight relegated performers and are sometimes even accompanied by soundtracks and tours. I’m wondering if you see any of these other titles as performing something similar in terms of their representations of musicians who act as hybrid fan/stars, or if you see these films as connected in terms of their representation of musicians who reside in some space that is tangential to conventional celebrity.

Jesse Schlotterbeck's picture

Last Days Here, Big Star, and This is Spinal Tap

Landon, I appreciate your feedback. I’ve seen Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom, but A Band Called Death is new to me. I’ll add it to my to view list. We could include Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012) in this discussion as another film about a band that could have been a lot bigger than they were. Like Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the Big Star doc opens with a series of talking heads who weigh in on this question: why wasn’t this band more successful? I would still say that this type of the rock doc is much more the exception than the rule, but we are fleshing out a large enough list here that it could be regarded as a subgenre in its own right.

If I had to pick just one additional film that would be most appropriate to discuss as a pair with the Anvil doc it would be Last Days Here (2011)—about another failed/cult metal group, Pentagram. Both films foreground the inability of the lead men and their groups to gain fame and fortune. Yet, the tone with which the films treat this theme varies, matching the health of the lead subject. Liebeling (of Pentagram) struggles with drug addiction and, more often than not, lives in his parents’ basement. Compared to Anvil, the tone of Last Days Here is more tragic, as we follow a very dysfunctional and emaciated lead subject. The fact that Kudlow (of Anvil) is a functional person—with a family, kids, and a full-time job—allows the filmmakers to indulge more in the humorous side of the subject—juxtaposing the pretense and bombast of metal music, performance style, and costuming, with the mundane, humdrum quality of his normal life.

Of course, there’s one film in particular that is also clearly intertextually connected with the Anvil doc: the 1984 mockumentary about metal excess, This is Spinal Tap. In interviews about the film, though they still take themselves and their music very seriously, Anvil band members make clear that they are fully aware of and encourage viewing the doc about their band as a double-bill with this legendary mockumentary.

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