At 50 years old, Robb Reiner is becoming a rock star.
And, he says, it’s about time.
The drummer is the cofounder of Anvil, the long-lived Canadian heavy metal group saluted by peers as a key influence — “These guys were gonna turn the world upside down,” notes Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich — and, for the vast majority of its career, ignored by the public. But now that’s changing.
“Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary made by band fan Sasha Gervasi, screenwriter of “The Terminal,” is making the rounds of film festivals and art houses and making lots of noise. Critics and fans are tapping into, not only the group’s under-appreciated body of music, but also the very human story about Reiner and singerguitarist Steve “Lips” Ludlow’s dedication to their work and pursuit of a dream that looked unattainable for the past 25 years.
Now Anvil has new management (Slayer’s), a new booking agent (who also handles Coldplay and Oasis), songs in the Rock Band video game and talk of tours and record releases. It’s a new lease on life that Reiner is unabashedly celebrating.
“I’m completely excited about it,” says the drummer. “It’s a great feeling having this all come together at this point in my life, being discovered and rediscovered in one blast. How can you not be enjoying this?”
Gervasi, who met the band in 1982 in England and eventually became a roadie for three of its tours, noted at the Glasgow Film Festival that “we all felt if the film came off right, it would help the band — and it’s helped the band. It feels extremely good; you do a bit of work and it’s nice, it has a positive effect.”
Without the film — which won awards at festivals in Los Angeles, Sydney, and Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta — Anvil would very likely have become one of rock’s great lost legends, with a reputation that far surpassed its commercial impact.
Reiner and Ludlow began playing music together in April 1973 in Toronto. They named their band LIPS, recruited two more musicians and pioneered a fierce, high-propulsion sound that became known as speed or power metal. The group signed a recording contract in the early ’80s, changed its name to avoid confusion with the disco group Lipps Inc., and in 1982 dropped “Metal on Metal,” an album that, in the film, is cited by members of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Guns N’ Roses and others as a seminal release.
Reiner — influenced himself by “old school” groups such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad — says the sound “came from the pure innocence of making music that you love. Lips started making these ... we used to call them ‘speedy little riffs.’ We were just having fun. We had no name for it. We just liked it.”
So did the hard rock world — initially, at least. “Metal on Metal” put Anvil on the map and allowed the group to tour the world — opening in 1984 alone for Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and The Scorpions. But, as the film unsparingly chronicles, the group was plowed under by ineffective management and booking representation, weak record labels and a general lack of vision that stalled its ascent.
“It’s hard to really explain — just timing and randomness,” Reiner says now. “We were a little ahead of our time with the (music), and all the pieces didn’t line up at the same time. And then by the time we got it together, it was just hard to come back, especially in America.”
But Reiner and Ludlow never quit, which is the crux of the Anvil, and “Anvil!...,” story. They worked day jobs when they had to, grasped at unlikely opportunities and, despite setback after setback, never entertained the idea of packing it in.
As Ludlow says in the film, “I started out with Robb when we were 14, and we said we’re gonna do it ’til we’re old men. We really meant that.”
And, Reiner contends, “we have been successful. We recorded 13 albums and toured for 30 years. We’ve had a cult following for years and years. We sell tens of thousands of albums. We have our own identity.
“That’s all the reason to keep rockin’. And, besides, what we do here, especially for me, is the best religion I can subscribe to in the world — FU-N. Fun. If you’ve got that, why quit?”
Filmmaker Gervasi acknowledged there are echoes of “This is Spinal Tap” — director Rob Reiner’s famed 1984 spoof about a comically deluded metal band — in Anvil’s story. “Obviously we couldn’t avoid the Spinal Tap comparison,” he explained, “ ’cause the drummer is called Robb Reiner.” But, he adds, the real heart of “Anvil!...” manages to transcend that likeness.
“The film starts out being kind of cynical and judgmental,” Gervasi said, “and then at a certain point I think the audience is, ‘Wait, hold on, I’m not really meant to be laughing at these guys anymore. They’re human beings with families. They’re just like me.’
“These guys are authentically connected and committed to their creation, and so that was really the journal of the film, to ... hopefully this very kind of technicolor, transcendent kind of glorious, majestic finale.”
Thanks to “Anvil!...” — which did better per-screen business in New York City than “Hannah Montana: The Movie” on its opening weekend — Anvil does indeed appear to be having the last laugh. Reiner, who’s been married for 30 years and has a 22-year-son who also plays drums, says the group is negotiating to re-release its albums, including 2007’s “This is Thirteen,” in the U.S. and other territories.
An “Anvil!..” DVD and soundtrack album, which includes the first studio recording of the song “Thumb Hang,” a fan favorite, are expected later this year, and the group — whose current lineup also includes bassist Glenn “G5” Gyorffy — is also working on new material.
“A lot of tours have opened up for us,” Reiner notes, “and now our focus is on building the movie and the band and seeing where it all goes.
“This movie is far beyond metal. There’s so much more to it than just metal — that’s why it’s appealing to everybody. Absolutely everybody takes something way from this. There’s a lot of positive energy. They might come in laughing at us, but they wind up laughing — and sometimes crying — with us.
“But I think the fact we’re still here, still rocking, still doing it, it’s an uplifting kind of thing. And now we’re finally getting some rewards for that effort.”
The Anvil Experience, featuring a screening of the film “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” and a performance by the band, takes place Tuesday (April 21) at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (248) 858-9333 or visit www.thecrofoot.com.
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