There is a moment in Air Guitar Nation, a clip from CNN following the first New York Regional Championship in 2003, when intellectual curmudgeon Jack Cafferty declares it the stupidest thing he's ever seen. Normally, I'm on board with Jack, and at the time his quote surfaces in the movie, I'm pretty much ready to be with him on this, too.
Not so much at the end.
The fun thing about movies like Air Guitar Nation is seeing how far people will go for their hobbies and then going along with them. The Air Guitar World Championship was begun in Finland in the mid-'90s, but the phenomenon didn't really hit American shores until 2003, when two enterprising rock fans decided to set up a U.S. chapter. Skirmishes in New York and L.A. gave us our first stateside champion, David S. Jung, known onstage as C-Diddy. An Asian-American with a penchant for Bruce Lee poses, the actor/comedian brought the rock in a red kimono and a Hello Kitty backpack worn in the front like a halter top. He swept the competition and geared up to take on the world as part of the ultimate showdown in Finland, the full-on Air Guitar Mecca.
The cool thing about C-Diddy is that even though he's really into this, you can tell he's fully aware of what a goofy "sport" he's participating in. You might wonder sometimes about his rival, however. Dan Crane, whose stage persona is Bjorn Turoque (say it out loud), isn't at all pleased with taking second place in New York. After a performance slot on the Carson Daly TV show, he convinces the television personality to host him on a trip to L.A. so he can go up against C-Diddy again. When that doesn't work out for him, he starts a web campaign to raise the money to take himself to Finland. When he talks to the camera about how C-Diddy is all flash and no substance and how he's bringing the real air guitar from somewhere deep inside his soul, it's hard to tell if there really is a line for him. Is this pro-wrestling-style bravado, or has this dude lost the plot? That question makes it all the more amusing to watch him track his enemy halfway around the world.
Once the Americans hit Europe, it's a whole other ballgame. These people really do take their air guitar seriously, and their stone-faced proclamations are a little freaky. A couple of Austrian competitors come off as particularly humorless, and the British champ who won the world title two years in a row and is now acting as a judge totally buys into the mission of air guitar. When the Finns conceived of this event, their idea began as a joke: air guitar as a campaign for world peace. If you're holding an imaginary Stratocaster in your hands, you have no room for a gun. Well, that joke isn't funny anymore. Ten years on, they mean it, man. C-Diddy is suddenly the underdog, perceived as maybe not being earnest enough about his craft. When Bjorn Turoque blows them all away in the qualifying round, the fight is on.
In case you're still not buying that this is a big deal, at the time, 5,000 people came out to see the competition. That's a lot for an event most of us would scoff at. Watching it on screen is a total blast, so I can't imagine what a gas it must be to see it in person. As the worldwide competitors rock out on stage, the furrowed brows disappear and it's all about playing that axe. Like any great sports documentary, Air Guitar Nation (directed by Alexandra Lipsitz) gives us the thrill of the battle and manages to create a real sense of tension. Can Bjorn Turoque finally get the glory? Will C-Diddy maintain his Asian fury? Can America bring rock 'n' roll back to its birthplace? Trust me, you're going to really want to know.
Air Guitar Nation is that rarest of documentaries--completely out of left field, totally crowd pleasing, and strangely heartwarming. It's like Hoop Dreams for bedroom rockstars. I was grinning ear to ear and rooting for my boys to place in the big finish. It might be goofy as all hell, but as the final riffs ring in your ears, you will believe in the power of the Air Guitar Nation!