I don’t like to brag or anything, but (*Barney Fife twitch*) I’m a bit of an air guitar virtuoso, if I don’t mind saying so myself. I haven’t won any competitions or anything, but in the words of Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve” … well … I’ve air-rocked to quite a few of them. Most air guitarists (or at least those of us who take the activity seriously) have our own signature moves. Mine is one I picked up from Marty McFly in Back to the Future: I fall to my knees, lie on my back, and wail on my axe until I bring the crowd to (awkward) silence. I tend to perform best to specific songs like “Blaze of Glory,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and, of course, Van Halen’s “Poundcake” (for which I have a choreographed routine). Usually, a large employee with a tucked-in shirt and crossed arms will escort me out of whatever bar I’m in afterwards as a courtesy, I can only assume, to save me from the throng of ladies dying for an autograph. My air guitar skills tend to have that effect on people. I also find that if you spend too much time on the ground at local drinking establishment you can collect quite a few souvenirs — spilled beer, peanut shells, spit, maybe some urine — with the back of your shirt. Just an added perk.
So, I was pretty stoked to hear about Air Guitar Nation, a documentary about a few of my colleagues and their journey toward the 2003 Air Guitar World Championship (due to a slipped disc — I got a little too enthusiastic performing “Yankee Rose” on karaoke night — I didn’t compete in 2003). The film didn’t spend a lot of time in theaters earlier this year, but then again, Air Guitar Nation is the sort of movie that gets discovered on DVD and rightfully becomes a cult classic, exposing the world to the adrenalized raw power of air guitar — performance art at its height. As one of the documentary’s impresarios remarks: Air guitar is an abstract art form; it’s only affected by what’s around it. Truer words have never been spoken, except maybe for those uttered by Bjorn Türoque: “To err is human; to air guitar is divine.” Holy shit is he right.
The film’s major focus is on air guitar rivals C-Diddy and Bjorn, a.k.a. David Jung and Dan Crane respectively. Bjorn is a decent, if not skilled air guitarist, who knows how to wield his axe, but he’s part of the La Nouvelle Vague of air guitar (I just made that up); you can see the influence of The Clash and even Billie Joe Armstrong in his work, but — despite talk of purism — he’s got no real air-oomph. But C-Diddy is an air-guitar God; he’s got a flashy Yngwie Malmsteen style — true Heavy Metal, classic Suzuki method — and performs to the metal great Nuno Bettencourt’s six-stringing (sadly, most of you only know him as the acoustic strummer behind Extreme’s “More than Words,” though Nuno is the preeminent guitarist of his day, or most any other, known in certain circles as the man behind the greatest “Flight of the Bumblebee” guitar solo ever recorded. That is a known fact. Ask anyone.). And while Bjorn rocks out in jeans and leather vests or some other pseudo punk getup, C-Diddy is a true showman, donning a caped kimono, spandex, sweatband and Hello Kitty ornamentation. C-Diddy and his Asian fury is the real deal, one of the few air-axemen who inspires envy in even this humble reviewer. And if you’ve seen my air-ballading (I tend toward Poison’s “Every Rose” or Slaughter’s “Fly to the Angels”), you’d know what that is saying.
There are other minor figures in Air Guitar Nation. Cherry Vanilla, for instance, introduces a bit of the riot grrrrl to the competition, while another notable Christian air guitarist brings some of the Megadeth influence to a rousing routine in which he impressively air heals himself out of a wheelchair. There are also a multitude of mullets worn by subpar traditionalists — first wavers whose influence extends no further than early Leppard, Dokken, or W.A.S.P.
But the real stars here are Bjorn and C-Diddy.
The documentary, directed with Greengrassian intensity (read: the camera shakes a lot) by Alexandra Lipsitz (who produces “Project Runway”) begins at the East Coast competition, held in NYC’s Pussycat Lounge, where a sign outside reads, “Absolutely no guitars beyond this point.” Despite tough opposition from the emo air guitarist Cry Tough, C-Diddy takes the title and moves on to the West Coast national competition, held at the Roxy (inspiring the film’s best line of bravura: “A lot of people played the Roxy. But I’m gonna play the Roxy with no instruments.”). The L.A. competition is introduced by Queen’s Brian May and the judges include Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon and the estimable Tom Morrello, from Rage Against the Machine. Take that, “American Idol.”
Despite losing the East Coast contest, Bjorn still manages to weasel into the national competition, thanks to Carson Daly, who snags Bjorn as a guest on his show after the dust from the late-night booking wars settles. Bjorn once again fails, while C-Diddy wins the competition, moving onto the World Championship, where Bjorn somehow raises the money to travel out to Finland and, ultimately, qualify as a wild-card, pitting the two once again in a final for all the air-marbles.
I don’t want to say who wins and give away the movie, but over in Finland, they are rightfully more into the art of air guitar, instead of the novelty of it, like so many fickle Americans (one Finnish man even remarks that, if you’re holding an air guitar, you cannot simultaneously hold a gun — and why would you need to? There’s nothing more powerful than the feel of cold, hard air.). They take their air guitar seriously, providing an arduous, intensive three-round competition that would rattle even the strongest (air) steel guitarist. And, as if that pressure was not enough, 2003 represented the first time an American had ever even entered the competition.
A lot of critics are dismissing Air Guitar Nation as droll fun, or a “hilarious” look at one of our nation’s vibrant subcultures. But that’s patronizing to the point of insulting. Air Guitar Nation is an important documentary on level with Michael Moore’s best work, A Thin Red Line, or even An Inconvenient Truth. It’s patriotic, goddamnit; a truly transcendent piece of filmmaking with the power to literally rock your cockles to a frazzled fritz. And to suggest anything but otherwise is to call into question your right to anarchically flash your devil horns.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He’s literally melted faces with his air guitar skills. He lives with his wife and son (a professional air guitarist in the making) in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Air Guitar Nation / Dustin Rowles
Film | August 16, 2007 | Comments ()