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‘Anvil’: hard rock, harder luck

FILM CRITIC

It’s true, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is a documentary about a heavy metal band, not everyone’s cup of noise, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the heck out of it. You may never have expected to see the words heavy metal, endearing and warmhearted in the same sentence, but you just did.

As directed by Sacha Gervasi, “Anvil” is about heavy metal in the same way that Jeff Blitz’s “Spellbound” is about spelling. It’s just the jumping-off point. The film is a surprisingly charming look at the haphazard career path of some earnest, eternally hopeful rockers who cling to optimism about a glorious future despite harsh reality’s repeated blows. Think of it as a real-life version of the mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” and you’ll get the idea.

If you are a fan of heavy metal, you already know what “Anvil’s” snappy prologue reveals. Once upon a time, interviews with superstars such as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Motorhead’s Lemmy and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash make clear, this Canadian band was the hottest thing in metal, touring with the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other groups that ended up selling millions of records.

But that was then, and in the 25 years that lead up to now, things did not break that way for the band, to put it mildly. Anvil kept making records that did not sell, kept dreaming the rock-star dream, but, as someone says, “sometimes life deals you a tough deck.” Lacking a major label contract and consistent management, Anvil might have disappeared off the face of the Earth if it weren’t for the bond between its two founding members, lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner.

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Still living near each other in Toronto, these two have been closer than brothers since they first met as 14-year-old rock-obsessed high-schoolers. An early collaboration, “Thumb Hang,” was -- no kidding -- based on a classroom lesson about the Spanish Inquisition. And its gone on from there.

Despite the in-your-face nature of the band’s lyrics and stage persona, “Anvil” excels at showing you the yearning, almost childlike enthusiasm that these men, especially Lips, bring to their work and their quest for ever-elusive success, and this is something you don’t expect.

Director Gervasi, best known as the screenwriter for Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” was a roadie for Anvil when he was but 16, and his obvious empathy for and connection with the group sets the film’s tone. Gervasi not only interviews fans and veteran rockers but also the wives, children and parents of Lips and Robb, both of whom turn out to be the sons of striving Jewish immigrants who didn’t necessarily know what to make of their sons’ passions.

Though both men are in their 50s now, with families and day jobs, they haven’t given up on breaking through the way their peers did. “Time doesn’t move backwards, it moves forwards,” Lips says with characteristic earnestness, as the group decides to give stardom one more shot.

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So, director Gervasi and cinematographer Chris Soos follow along as Anvil goes on the European tour from hell, masterminded by a new manager who can’t seem to get the hang of railway schedules. “It’s a good thing we got those sleeping bags,” Lips says, ever the optimist, as the boys miss yet another train. Yes, he admits later, “things went dramatically wrong, but at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on.”

A lot more than this adventure, which ended with a Monsters of Rock festival in Transylvania promoted by a father and son metal-head team, happens to Anvil on-camera, but how things eventually work out for them should be left for the film to disclose.

No matter what travails they face, Lips and Robb remain good company, invariably upbeat no matter how many cockeyed crises come around the bend.

“The music lives forever,” Lips says defiantly near the end, adding with a wry grin, “maybe the debt does too.”

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘Anvil! The

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Story of Anvil’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: At the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223

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