No anxiety paralyzes us quite so much as the fear of insignificance. I’m convinced that most of us could live under a blanket of constant mortar attack, terrorist threat, economic deprivation and even extreme hunger and thirst before we could accept a total lack of importance, either to society as a whole or merely a friend or loved one. Feeling needed, then, is what makes us human; the security of knowing that someone, somewhere would be adversely affected by our absence. It is this lust for consequence that permeates Alexandra Lipsitz’s Air Guitar Nation, a documentary that works not only as an ode to an extremely bizarre, yet dedicated, subculture, but also as a reflection of a society nearly driven mad by the fanatical drive to stand apart from the crowd. As one master of the air guitar says at one point, “I just want to be the best at something.” Obviously, it didn’t matter what that something was, nor did it seem to be an issue that a majority of the world would find his obsession the height of silliness. After all, this isn’t actual music being played, but merely its simulation. But as idiotic as air guitar might appear to those who have spent years mastering the craft of the actual instrument, there’s something endearing about the pursuit of its opposite. After all, the man in question, one “C-Diddy” (David Jung), freely admits that he has no aptitude whatsoever for playing the guitar, so why not pick up the next best thing? There’s a refreshing lack of pretension to the confession, and after he’s seen in action, I’m not altogether certain he’s entirely lacking in talent.
The film begins with a regional championship in New York, where C-Diddy shreds the competition with an act so maniacal that it nearly exhausts the viewer. Sporting a flowing robe and Hello Kitty breastplate, Diddy is the ultimate performer; contorting his face, using his tongue to full effect, and kicking the air with the glee of a man possessed. There’s nothing in his hands, of course, but as realism is a quality by which they are judged, Diddy is careful to approximate the actual chords and whammy-bar usage of a real guitar. He picks, strums, slides, and dances about so convincingly, that it becomes irrelevant that he’s not an actual musician. He understands that in the absence of an instrument, he must overcompensate with style and sweaty dedication. Still, what sets him apart is his insistence on perfection. There’s nothing random in his “playing”; he’s systematic, precise, and eerily effective. As a person, Diddy is undeniably charming, but never so much that he becomes smarmy. He believes in what he’s doing (this is no joke), but he refuses to take on the airs of so many “artists” who believe in turning every waking opportunity into an audition. It surprises no one that Diddy is a budding actor (aren’t we all?), but he’s the most pleasant wannabe I’ve ever seen in a movie. He wants to achieve something, of course, but he’s not about to overwhelm you with self-absorbed drive.
Diddy is a striking contrast to “Bjorn Turoque” (Dan Crane), an equally dedicated, but fatally obnoxious ax-man who pleads and whines with all the gumption we’ve come to expect from the acting type. He’s a terrible loser, and despite failing in New York, he shows up in Los Angeles to try to earn a spot at the world championships. He loses there as well (a truly inspired air master named “Krye Tuff” takes the title), but still believes he should be asked to compete in Oulu, Finland, for all the marbles. Somehow, he manages to secure a slot, but it’s his utter disregard of the rules that makes him the “enemy” of the piece. It’s clear he’s jealous of Diddy, and uses his stage persona as an excuse for his dickish behavior (he sports sunglasses like he’s a frat boy Richard Ramirez). It’s amazing how many of these guys make a split between the “real” person and the “character,” but there it is time and time again. Still, the insufferable narcissism makes sense, as they are surrounded by sycophants and admirers who have the audacity to label their activity as “performance art.” In a strict definition of the term, perhaps it is, but it’s better to keep it grounded; a simple indulgence that has no higher aspiration than a few laughs. After all, truly inspired air guitar is hilarious — and quite entertaining — but I’m loath to attach any greater social meaning to the onstage antics. If it is in fact art, what isn’t? Or is that the point?
That said, air guitar’s fan base — dedicated and wildly vocal — won’t allow it to be dismissed as a mere activity. From all appearances, it’s a way of life, and striking proof that if it’s discussed on television, it is inherently interesting. Both Diddy and Turoque appear on talk shows (hell, even CNN at one point), but rather than sit openmouthed at the degradation of culture, I found myself amused by the whole spectacle. Part of my appreciation for air guitar, of course, is due to my love of the music being aped, but with increasing force, I’m finding more and more of the sublime in the ridiculous. It’s fair to be troubled by the democratization of culture, whereby a confirmed retard like Daniel Johnston is given equal standing with Mozart or Miles Davis, but as long as we recognize barriers and limitations, why not encourage participation? It’s a tough sell, even for me, as I prefer leaving expertise to the experts, but I can understand celebrating the losers and hacks who can’t stand toe to toe with the giants. They’re entitled to their corner of the kingdom, are they not? It’s even acceptable to laugh at the air guitarists, as it must never be forgotten that they stand before us because the stage reserved for the real performers was filled to capacity. And believe me, I’d much rather deal with a man who can’t play a lick and knows it, rather than the deluded creep who spends year after year in seedy bars trying to convince the world that he’s the next Jimi Hendrix. It’s not so much a dream deferred, then, as a dream diverted.
As stated, it all ends up in Finland, where the world’s best come to prove once and for all who rules the air guitar roost. Diddy and Turoque are the first Americans ever to appear at the competition, which is usually dominated by participants from Australia, Austria, England, and of course, Finland. Interestingly, as ugly as Americans usually are overseas, they come off best at this gathering, as it is the Europeans who seem so gloomy and humorless. The Austrian finalists, for example, are just plain weird, and impossible to read in any meaningful way. By contrast, Diddy is lighthearted, friendly, and warm, and despite his passionate desire to win, he never loses perspective and thinks he’s about to pick up a Nobel Prize or something. From some accounts, Diddy was given little chance to win at Oulu, because his eccentric ways were deemed too obnoxious for such a “serious” contest. Old school chops seemed to be most appreciated, though in the end, Diddy’s sheer force of talent was too much to handle. No one else ever really stood a chance. From the rehearsed round (where participants “play” the song of their choice) to the spontaneous turn (which forces competitors to improvise), Diddy was the consummate professional.
But while his talent was unquestioned, there were a few who managed to elicit more giggles and twisted admiration. Take “The Magnet,” a Christian-themed rocker who arrived on stage in a wheelchair adorned with a giant cross, shredding with appreciable style, only to fall to the ground, flail about, and be “healed” by the power of music. His “rise” was a clear highlight and deserved a special trophy all its own. And then there was a dude from Belgium who looked exactly like Jesus (right down to the hair and flowing robe), only with a greater affinity for violent leg kicks. The Aussie redhead also made a memorable appearance, and at one point threatened to take the whole thing from Diddy’s grasp. Each has his own story to tell, and as each tidbit of their lives passed before me, it confirmed my belief that a fascinating documentary can be made about anything, so long as the subjects are allowed to present themselves on their own terms. Sure, it’s irritating as hell that everyone now feels entitled to his or her moment in the sun, but there’s no turning back now. Whether to confirm humanity’s madness or commemorate the joyful absurdity of life, the very existence of air guitarists should make us all proud. The circus, it would seem, is in no danger of closing its doors.