Two documentaries came across my transom this past week; I’m not sure how (or when) they originally made it onto my ridiculously long Netflix queue, but I’m profoundly grateful that they did. Documentaries usually teach me something about a subject that sounds intriguing to me; the really good ones go a little deeper and stay with me a little longer. The very best ones tell unexpected stories filled with surprises and twists, provoking equal measures oflaughter and tears. I look forward to these inspired and inspiring journeys, these privileged glimpses into lives I can only imagine. In this smack, a highly esteemed inner city fifth grade teacher takes on a has-been heavy metal band from suburban Toronto. It would be difficult to pair two less likely combatants, but the parallels will astound and the outcome might surprise. Shakespeare versus Heavy Metal. Bring it on.
In This Corner
When they were fourteen, two boys made a promise to rock together until they were old men. In the early eighties, their band Anvil made it very big but very briefly, influencing other metal bands that lasted longer. Longtime best friends and Anvil bandmates Steve “Lips” Kudlow, lead guitarist and vocalist, and drummer Robb Reiner are the major players in this uplifting and life-affirming story of a promise kept and undying optimism. Now in their fifties, Lips and Robb test their friendship as they face every conceivable obstacle to a successful and highly unlikely comeback, embarking on a tragically misbegotten European tour and struggling mightily to record a thirteenth album.
In That Corner
Rafe Esquith teaches fifth grade in a risky Los Angeles neighborhood public school. His students are mostly Asian and Hispanic for whom English is their second language; these children of immigrants speak their native languages at home. Rafe insists that his students work hard and act kindly, and the results he achieves are beyond description. They perform a production of “Hamlet” at the end of their academic year, and even esteemed Shakespearean actors and classroom visitors Michael York and Ian McKellen are impressed by the quality of the students’ work and grasp of the text. Like many excellent teachers, Rafe sees life lessons and teaching opportunities in all things and wastes no time. His diligence and outreach earns his charges a year of unforgettable experiences. Originally broadcast on PBS, the doc is readily available on DVD.
As in any effective dramatic film, the narrative of a great documentary feels unpredictable and original, yielding surprises and touching our hearts in a new way. Rafe and the boys of Anvil care about artistic expression; they value it highly and they use it to make an impact on the world. They want their lives to matter, to touch other lives in a positive and lasting way. They succeed.
“The Hobart Shakespeareans” evokes tears and laughter, but it shies away from controversy. An effective valentine to an inarguably great teacher, the film reveals few real surprises, instead opting to piling on the praise and glowing yet unspecific details, most offered by Rafe himself. As a result, Rafe seems too good to be true. Without talking to former students or other educators, particularly his admittedly jealous rivals and peers, the documentary misses going deep. We know going in that we are about to watch an extraordinary educator in action, and that is exactly what we get. We’re left with a lot of open questions. We wonder how Rafe affords all the class outings, and the explanations offered arrive in troubling shorthand. We wonder at what point in his twenty-year tenure the world found out about him and clamored to help. We wonder how long he’s been hosting famous classroom guests and how the documentary camera’s presence changed the alchemy of the room. Most importantly, we wonder what other educators could do with the kind of extraordinary seed money and good will Rafe has to spend.
We’re left with a lot of questions and no real answers. We’re also left wishing he were our teacher or our child’s teacher, and wishing other teachers, all teachers, had the wherewithal, support, attention, dedication, and talent to make such an extraordinary difference.
“Anvil! The Anvil Story” takes so many untelegraphed turns that it’s impossible to predict. The most unexpected thing is how inexplicably sweet the guys are, how truly touching their hopes and dreams, and how much we pull for them to make it on their terms. The filmmaker masterfully builds the narrative, adding salient biographical details and snippets of interviews captured on the fly, dropped like tantalizing breadcrumbs on our journey. I’m far from a metalhead; I’d never even heard of Anvil before seeing this documentary. Like another terrific metal band documentary, “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” this film doesn’t pander to fans. It goes deep and leaves us thinking about our own lives, our own relationships, and even – gulp – the meaning of life. Who’d a thunk it?
Anvil influenced and inspired many other metal bands; the documentary makes a compelling claim for that (dubious) distinction. More importantly, the documentary shows us up close and personal the inestimable power and ineffable sweetness of positive thinking. Lips is the conscience and soul of the group and the film; his casually shared insights are sprinkled throughout, and they’re golden. He’s the personification of humility, gratitude, perspective, optimism, and love. He’s also a little nutty and difficult, and
the doc doesn’t waste its time canonizing him. After eighty minutes with Anvil and their families, you walk away a little bit in love with Lips and Robb, wishing them well, and looking at your own life in a brand new way. What more can you ask?
Both documentaries inspire and entertain, and both are worth a look. Calling into some question how you’re leading your life, they argue convincingly that dreams, even — or perhaps especially — mpossible dreams, are important and achievable. Even if you’ve never heard a metal band, give “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” a chance. You won’t be sorry.