Two documentaries came across my transomÂ this past week; I’m not sure how (or when) they originally made it onto my ridiculously long Netflix queue,Â but I’m profoundly grateful that they did. Documentaries usually teach me somethingÂ about a subject that sounds intriguing to me; the really good ones go a littleÂ deeper and stay with me a little longer. The very best ones tell unexpectedÂ stories filled with surprises and twists, provoking equal measures oflaughter and tears. I look forward toÂ these inspired and inspiring journeys, these privileged glimpses into lives IÂ can only imagine. In this smack, a highly esteemed inner city fifth grade teacherÂ takes on a has-been heavy metal band from suburban Toronto. It would beÂ difficult to pair two less likely combatants, but the parallels will astoundÂ and the outcome might surprise. Shakespeare versus Heavy Metal. Bring it on.
[singlepic id=277 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In This Corner
When they were fourteen, two boys made aÂ promise to rock together until they were old men. In the early eighties, theirÂ band Anvil made it very big but very briefly, influencing other metal bandsÂ that lasted longer. Longtime best friends and Anvil bandmates SteveÂ “Lips” Kudlow, lead guitarist and vocalist, and drummer Robb ReinerÂ are the major players in this uplifting and life-affirming story of a promiseÂ kept and undying optimism. Now in their fifties, Lips and Robb test theirÂ friendship as they face every conceivable obstacle to a successful and highly unlikelyÂ comeback, embarking on a tragically misbegotten European tour and struggling mightily toÂ record a thirteenth album.
[singlepic id=291 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In That Corner
Rafe Esquith teaches fifth grade in aÂ risky Los Angeles neighborhood public school. His students are mostly Asian andÂ Hispanic for whom English is their second language; these children ofÂ immigrants speak their native languages at home. Rafe insists that his studentsÂ work hard and act kindly, and the results he achieves are beyond description.Â They perform a production of “Hamlet” at the end of their academicÂ year, and even esteemed Shakespearean actors and classroom visitors MichaelÂ York and Ian McKellen are impressed by the quality of the students’ work andÂ grasp of the text. Like many excellent teachers, Rafe sees life lessons andÂ teaching opportunities in all things and wastes no time. His diligence andÂ outreach earns his charges a year of unforgettable experiences. Originally broadcastÂ on PBS, the doc is readily available on DVD.
As in any effective dramatic film, theÂ narrative of a great documentary feels unpredictable and original, yieldingÂ surprises and touching our hearts in a new way.Â Rafe and the boys of Anvil care about artisticÂ expression; they value it highly and they use it to make an impact on theÂ world. They want their lives to matter, to touch other lives in a positive andÂ lasting way. They succeed.
“The Hobart Shakespeareans” evokes tears andÂ laughter, but it shies away from controversy. An effective valentine to anÂ inarguably great teacher, the film reveals few real surprises, instead optingÂ to piling on the praise and glowing yet unspecific details, most offered by Rafe himself. As aÂ result, Rafe seems too good to be true. Without talking to former students orÂ other educators, particularly his admittedly jealous rivals and peers, theÂ documentary misses going deep. We know going in that we are about to watch anÂ extraordinary educator in action, and that is exactly what we get. We’re leftÂ with a lot of open questions. We wonder how Rafe affords all the class outings,Â and the explanations offered arrive in troubling shorthand. We wonder at whatÂ point in his twenty-year tenure the world found out about him and clamored to help. We wonder howÂ long he’s been hosting famous classroom guests and how theÂ documentary camera’s presence changed the alchemy of the room. Most importantly, we wonder what other educators could do with the kind of extraordinary seedÂ money and good will Rafe has to spend.
We’re left with a lot of questions and no real answers.Â We’re also left wishing he were our teacher or our child’s teacher, and wishingÂ other teachers, all teachers, had the wherewithal, support, attention, dedication, and talent toÂ make such an extraordinary difference.
“Anvil! The Anvil Story”Â takes so many untelegraphed turns that it’s impossible to predict. The mostÂ unexpected thing is how inexplicably sweet the guys are, how truly touchingÂ their hopes and dreams, and how much we pull for them to make it on theirÂ terms. The filmmaker masterfully builds the narrative, adding salientÂ biographical details and snippets of interviews captured on the fly, droppedÂ like tantalizing breadcrumbs on our journey. I’m far from a metalhead; I’d never even heard of Anvil beforeÂ seeing this documentary. Like another terrific metal band documentary,Â “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” this film doesn’t pander to fans.Â It goes deep and leaves us thinking about our own lives, our own relationships,Â and even – gulp – the meaning of life. Who’d a thunk it?
Anvil influenced and inspired many other metal bands; theÂ documentary makes a compelling claim for that (dubious) distinction. MoreÂ importantly, the documentary shows us up close and personal the inestimableÂ power and ineffable sweetness of positive thinking. Lips is the conscience and soul ofÂ the group and the film; his casually shared insights are sprinkled throughout,Â and they’re golden. He’s the personification of humility, gratitude,Â 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,Â you walk away a little bit in love with Lips and Robb, wishing them well, andÂ looking at your own life in a brand new way. What more can you ask?
Both documentaries inspire and entertain,Â and both are worth a look. Calling into some question how you’re leading yourÂ life, they argue convincingly that dreams, even — or perhaps especiallyÂ — mpossible dreams, are important and achievable. Even if you’ve never heard aÂ metal band, give “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” a chance. You won’t be sorry.