The Reeler


March 22, 2007

Air Guitar Nation

Endearing characters and charming trash talk keep air guitar doc rocking

Something of an absurdist take on the star-is-born narrative held so dear in America, Air Guitar Nation is a highly likable, geeks-shall-inherit-the-earth documentary (in the vein, most recently, of Wordplay), that teeters riiight on the brink of disingenuousness in its final moments. That’s not to say that the filmmakers -- director Alexandra Lipsitz and the Magic Elves production team -- have disingenuous intent, but rather that what seemed like a logical, euphoric extension of the mood at the time (international air guitar competition as instant peace demonstration) might have been better second-guessed, say, the next morning. You may be willing to cede the film its small stab at political relevancy, however; a lot of goofy goodwill is built up over the course of its 86 minutes, along with a solid shot of cultural cachet.

The World Air Guitar Championships (need I explain?) began in the early '90s, taking place annually in Oulu, Finland. When New Yorker Kriston Rucker read about the competition in 2001, he and his friend Cedric Devitt decided to fly over and see what it was all about; intrigued by the poker-faced approach to achieving “airness” (a kind of zen rockitude that transcends the act into an art form, the state to which all imaginary strummers aspire) the pair were dismayed to learn that there was no American contingent in what would seem to be, on the face of it, an extremely American challenge. Rucker and Devitt returned to the States determined to find an American to take to the 2003 championships; together with the filmmakers, they staged competitions on both coasts.

Things escalated after Howard Stern chatted up the New York event on his radio show, and the search for a champion became a flashbulb phenomenon. Two of the film’s major players emerged from that night: Dan Crane -- a k a “Bjorn Turoque,” a garage band veteran and software developer who looks like Max Fischer after a Strokes makeover -- and David Jung, a k a “C-Diddy,” an actor and comedian partial to red satin tights and a Hello Kitty backpack fashioned into a breastplate. All of the performers choose stage names and carefully craft alter egos for themselves, describing their personas as separate, superhuman beings who are often freer, happier -- definitely crazier -- on stage.

Jung is clearly hungry for fame, a step up the career ladder, and his crowd-pleasing, sometimes pandering antics cause dismay for the European purists, even while working their unstoppable razzle-dazzle on the crowds. The son of Korean immigrants, Jung broke his parents’ hearts by choosing the acting profession, so the initial attention he earns (he is almost immediately booked on the Jimmy Kimmel show, and later pops up on CNN) is vindicating. Crane is a somewhat more interesting case; though he places second in New York, he scrounges funds together to attend the Los Angeles competition, and then even Finland, despite his losses. “I’m not good at being myself,” he says, laughing uncomfortably at the admission. There is a rather marked division between the drives of the two American competitors (who also express anguish at the thought of being suddenly unwelcome, seen as “war-mongers” on the world stage) angling for disposable celebrity status, and the Euro-dudes rocking out, sometimes literally with their cocks out, drunk on the ridiculous exhilaration (as opposed to the Law and Order bookings dancing before them). Or just drunk: “I think I drank too less for this,” laments the Belgian entrant, after a sub-par showing.

Despite flashes of a few female competitors in the States (and passing mention of C-Diddy protégé "Sonyk Rok"'s triumph in 2004), the 2003 World Championships are exclusively a dude thing, and that seems like a shame. The soundtrack is completely irresistible, particularly a fantastic sequence edited to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock” that captures the stupid, childish, wonderful fun of being moved to rock, wherever ye may be. There are enough endearing characters and charming trash talk to keep what is essentially a one-note joke running toward the spastic crescendo with alacrity. Though I myself may have drank too less to throw my arms around the “World Peace/Air Guitar Forever” alliance that brings up the rear, watching a nice Korean boy finally get his parents’ approval for playing the Roxy (and then Finland) with no instruments is about as feel-good as it gets.

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