I don’t even know where to begin as I try to share my feelings about the documentary film, Anvil The Story of Anvil. I just watched this critically acclaimed documentary film about the 1980s hair band It was my Saturday night assignment.
I did not know what to expect. My main reason for watching the film was to study how it was laid out and to take the pulse of the story line. This is because there is a Hollywood filmmaker currently working on a treatment to film a documentary on me.
I had seen the documentary on Eddie Izzard a few months back, Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story – when it played in New York and Eddie on hand to talk to attendees. That particular film left me informed, enlightened and completely inspired. I shed tears at that showing. So, I thought this would be something similar… Boy was I wrong.
The feelings I had watching Anvil, The Story of Anvil, were unnerving. I felt my jaw clench and my head ache. My whole body was tense and edgy and I felt disturbed by it. I am really searching for the words here, because I guess, I don’t understand why it was so upsetting. I was unhappy to see that this band, with all the potential in the world, was unable to attract the right people to them early in their career. They were unable to leverage the initial success they experienced. Here they are 35 years later, still living hand to mouth trying to make it big. All the band members work day jobs and take vacation time to perform with their band. Their dream was alive, their friends and family were still by their side, and being supportive. But, there is a thin line between living the dream, pursuing the dream and deciding when to stop and get a “real” job. Something went wrong…but what….
The film answers this question more in the subtleties of what the various band members and wives/girlfriends/relatives have to say about things. A lot is implied, not stated. But, here are the high lights….
Anvil had been unable to leverage their early success into long term success. They had bad management and what appears to be a limited knowledge base of the music business. You have to wonder how it went all pear shaped. They were opening for all the top metal Rock acts of the day (The Scorpions, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi) and are credited really as the FIRST band to really come out with what we consider 1980s rock. Now if they were debuting in 2010, they would have branched out into their own realty show, clothing line, put their music on Second Life, Twittered until their fingers bleed, and found their music on guitar hero within 12 months. But, they did not grow naturally into those opportunities from then to now.
When the film showed the lead band member, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, sending off a sampling of songs to the producer who worked with them early in their career, I was dumbfounded to see a cassette tape going into the envelope..not a CD, a cassette tape. From what I can determine, this would have been 2006. It was fascinating to see the producer want to meet with the band in person (they flew to London, he did not fly to see them). and in the end, he was like Sure, I’ll produce you..it’s going to cost you around $40K, I just about choked. See, the thing is…a producer willing to work for you through a production deal, takes on all the financial risk..they pay for all the recording time and of course..own the sound recording when they are done. They have a financial incentive to help you find a deal. Those deals are out there, but less common. But, that is not what was being offered to Anvil. It was like.. if you can find the money, I’ll produce you. That’s it. The producer does not have to help find you a deal or even do anything beyond finalize your songs. Yeah..this producer and probably a long line of others, would have been happy to produce Anvil. It’s work. Producers work for a fee. And, they need clients. Now, they do have a reputation to uphold, so they don’t produce just anybody….but…still….even with that….. What was interesting is I did not see the producer in the meeting the band had with EMI, to shop their final produce recordings. The recordings were OK it seemed, but not mind blowing..but to be fair, they don’t really spend much time on the new songs on the album.
EMI met with the band, but eventually turned them down via email! This meeting was interesting because Lips was saying how the needed a major label. And yet, from what I have read in Anvil’s discography they have never been on a major label and here it is 35 years later and they expect EMI to give then a deal and they are all in their 50s and have had no significant progress (they did put out 12 albums..they were writing, but not gaining more traction) in their career over that 35 year period.
Watching the band on tour in Europe with out proper publicity in some cases, not getting paid in others, performing to empty houses, and missing travel connections was just incredible. The last show on the tour was in Transylvania and was supposed to be to a festival with a draw of $5K-$10K people. 174 showed up that night. Now, the movie made the point very well..they were not using a seasoned booking agent/tour manager, they were using a fan..and while I’m still not clear how this person got in their circle, they were trying very hard to make the tour work, but simply lacked the experience to make it happen. The band was sure to recognize what they were experiencing was unprofessional at best…but the thing is, it did not appear as if they did anything to ensure the tour was successful, in terms of overseeing the tour manager. They heard the words “European Tour” and that was enough for them. Or so the documentary film suggests. To be fair, we are seeing highlights..or maybe I should say lowlights…
Watching the band stress out and yell at each other during the recording process was hard to watch. I understood it though. What I was witnessing was 35 years of frustration and anger at not being able to figure out how to be that top band they always dreamed of being. They were lashing out at each other, for lack of any other outlet for what they were feeling. They were stressed…Lips more than any others. They were recording on a loan from Lips sister. A lot was at stake. They were running out of time. They had to find a way to make all this work for them. The whole process toward the new album had the feeling of a last ditch effort, even though we all know, this is not a last effort…not with technology today……this would be a next effort.
Toward the end of the film, you get to see Anvil get a break. They are asked to perform in Japan for a Rock festival to a large audience of adoring fans. And, they go ahead and print up their album and start selling it on their own, through their website, direct to fans. What was interesting in this part of the film, when they were empowered with their own careers using the modern tools of today, their entire energy changed. They seemed more confident, more at ease, and happy. Something you do not see in the entire film prior to this point and time. I was thrilled to see this. I was excited to see that they had figured out how to harness their own power and take control over their career. And, maybe that is the point.
After all the ups and downs, Anvil realized in the end..that they must take control of their careers and leverage their brand…and they do have a brand..if nothing else. That is clear. They had fans who had been following them around those entire 35 years. Anvil does not actually need a major label to do what they want to do. They can sell direct to fans and market themselves using all that has changed in 35 years…technology. Technology and their undeniable faith in their dream!