Credit: Brent J. Craig

It’s become a rock cliché to say that heavy metal stars are acting like something out of ”a real-life Spinal Tap.” So let’s get this out of the way: Anvil! The Story of Anvil really is the real-life Spinal Tap. It’s a hilarious, and unexpectedly moving, documentary about the greatest metal band you’ve probably never heard of — Anvil, a crew of Canadian headbangers who came up in the demon-thrash ’80s and were potent and original enough to influence the style and sound of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth. We see the band in footage from a 1984 Japan stadium show, and yes, they’re pretty great. The lead singer, Steve ”Lips” Kudlow, scream-snarls with a viciousness that would make Paul Stanley blush under his makeup, and the whole band rockets forward with the kind of hell-bent thunder-god virility that made metal the dominant rock form for a generation.

And then? Then they went nowhere. The film catches up with Lips and his drummer cohort, whose name is Robb Reiner (surely some strange form of Spinal Tap karma), as they go about their cruddy day jobs 25 years later in Toronto. They’re family men, and they still love to play, yet the predicament of being has-beens-who-never-made-it-but-know-they-should-have weighs on them like a cosmic curse. At 50, Lips is a frizzy-haired goofball cherub with eyes that still shine like a child’s — he’s like Howard Stern as drawn by R. Crumb. Like Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel, he’s a master of the kind of ingenious-stupido metalhead logic that masks egomania in ? deluded optimism. ”Things went drastically wrong,” he says of life on the road. ”But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on!”

Anvil! The Story of Anvil traces the band’s attempt at a comeback in 2007, starting with a half-baked tour of grimy rock caverns in the Czech Republic and Transylvania that turns into a series of farcical disasters. From there, they seek out their old producer to record their 13th album and find a kind of triumph. Lips is capable of punching out a shady club owner (we see him do it), or screaming in ? the face of his buddy and bandmate, Robb (the two look like muffin-faced twins). Yet when he talks about stardom, we see the innocent rock dreamer that he has never stopped being. Lips and Robb might have been famous (they were gypped by fate), but Anvil! understands that the ultimate measure of metal stardom is to remain a legend in your own mind. A