Bang your head and break out your best moves, rockers. Director Alexandra Lipsitz's Air Guitar Nation was one of the sweet, funny, and shockingly heart-warming surprises of the Asian American film fest this year; you get another chance to see it at the Red Vic today, June 7.
C-Diddy rocks the haus in Air Guitar Nation.
And if you're still slacking, know that it comes out in August on DVD. Of course, if that's not enough know that the real thing the doc is based upon - the US Air Guitar Championships started yesterday in DC and ends in SF at the Independent on June 28. So gentlemen - and ladies - start your night moves - and remember the US national finals are in NYC on Aug. 16 and the world championships are, as always, in Oulu, Finland in September.
I spoke to Lipsitz this spring when her doc took its first turn through SF theaters.
Director Alexandra Lipsitz.
Bay Guardian: What brought you to air guitar?
Alexandra Lipsitz: Kriston Rucker and Cedric Devitt, the guys in the movie who are the narrators - they read about it in the Wall Street Journal, went and filmed in Finland in 2002 and came back and pitched it as a television show to Magic Elves, the company I work with. My sister owns the company, Jane Lipsitz, along with Dan Cutforth. We do shows like Project Greenlight, Project Runway, Top Chef, Last Comic Standing, a lot of reality TV shows. Kriston and Cedric brought the idea to them as sort of an anti-American Idol television show.
So they started pitching it. VH1 was interested and they started to do preproduction for it, set up Pussycat Lounge and the Roxy to do the competition, and they basically brought all of us in who worked for the company. We have a huge team of people who do sound and direct. We all came in, shot it, and Tony Sacco, who's our dp, myself, and Casey Kriley to Finland with Kriston and Cedric and the champion C-Diddy.
We filmed in Finland, and the story was amazing. We came back and started cutting, and no one really picked it up. Meanwhile through my experience I just got really sucked into it. The people were so dynamic. I was having such a good time. I never laughed harder. And I was going from air guitar to Last Comic Standing, and I was going, "This is gong to fun - 40 comics, y'know. NOWHERE as fun as air guitar. Actually comics are kinda depressing people. They're funny when they're on stage but like in real life....
But these people - C-Diddy or David Jung, Dan Crane or Bjorn Turoque, Gordon Hintz or Krye Tuff - they're dynamic. They got these dual personalities - they're hilarious. And we had a good time. Kriston and Cedric are just geniuses and a good time. So I kept going. I kept filming and the competition expanded in 2004. And at the end of the championship in 2004, I was like, "Y'know, let's make a movie out of this because we have all this great footage." I have a history in documentary film.
I pitched it to producers, that I'd get the editing system and they'd get the editor, and we'd make it. So we got Conor O'Neill and we cut it.
BG: Why didn’t anyone want to pick it up?
AL: What I think is hard about Air Guitar and television is the music is…awesome. And a little bit frightening when you're budgeting something. You think competition of one-minute songs, 17 preformers, usually the greatest music you’ve ever heard - Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. Huge, huge numbers - you're talking $2 million for 20 minutes. Yeah, licensing, a big issue, I think.
The way we got around that is that we did montages to one song. The first round, which is usually everyone doing their own song, became a montage to one song, and it got the point across. I think everybody when they see the competition, they don’t really notice it. They don’t even wrap their mind around that element. They just understand that a competition is happening, and they're rocking out, and that’s all they need to know.
I think the reason why I fell into [the film] is it needed to be done. You can't come across an experience and story like this and just let it sit on the shelf, right?
BG: What's your personal experience with air guitar?
AL: I was in Finland, and it was after the 2003 championship. We were at the 45 Special where Bjorn Turoque comes and does his performance. Everybody's partying downstairs in the basement. The DJ was rocking. There was 25, 30 people on the dance floor air-guitaring together. I was kinda doing the wallflower on the side. And Cedric came dancing up and whispered, "Release your inner air guitar," and pulled me on the dance floor, and I started air-guitaring. And then Dan Crane created something like Airioke. Air guitar of the people by the people, which is noncompetitive. We’ve been doing Airioke since 2004: at film festivals we show the movie and put on Airioke. We’ve done it for a few months in bars in LA. Kriston and Cedric did Airioke with him in NY in bars every week.
I was an air drummer before this whole experience. This has kinda opened eyes....
BG: You've opened up other people's eyes, in general, no?
AL: Yeah, a lot of people tell me, "Oh, dude, I was just in my room air-guitaring to Deep Purple." And that’s great. That’s something you can take out of the bedroom and put on the world stage, like Brian May said. There's something that happens when you take it into a competitive place and take it out into the open. It's like you get transfixed by it. Just watching these people do this and it's so much fun.
When you do a competition, it's like a rock show meets a sporting event, and you see every rock band that you've ever possibly wanted to see all in one show. It's like an homage to the greats of the guitar: Jimmy Page, Slash, Keith Richards - they're all playing for you.
And then there's just the whole element of performance art and people stepping out of their regular persona. Where you see Gordon Hintz, budget analyst for the city of Long Beach, quiet, soft-spoken guy, he turns into Krye Tuff with a wig and spandex and the sideburns and the kneepads. And Gordon Hintz, is now, in 2004 ... this is one of the stories I filmed. That’s why I say I have a sequel, though lately I've been saying, "I have a trilogy!" No one is listening to me. "Yeah, let's get through this one." Anyway Gordon Hintz moved back to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2004 and ran for state assembly. Against an 18-year incumbent Republican because he wanted to raise awareness in Wisconsin as a swing state to help support Kerry in the election. He didn’t win but he ran again and so now he's a state assemblyman in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Krye Tuff! He has stickers like "Vote for Krye Tuff." But then when you hear him talk about the issues, he's like, informed and speaks really well. I actually filmed him at a pancake breakfasdt at some local supermarket with maybe 50 people over the age of 60. He went around and campaigned to get signatures. Priceless, priceless.
That’s what I found attractive about air guitar - the people are smart and entertaining, well-spoken, creative, smart, entertaining.
Then you got David Jung who's an amazing performer and actor, who could really transform himself from a soft-spoken Korean kid who loves his family and wants to make them proud. But also knows he's an amazing actor and creator so he creates something like C-Diddy. He was most recently on Heroes. He's pursuing his acting career and writing in LA as well as selling pooper-scoopers.
BG: Did you imagine him to be such a champ?
AL: The first time I met David was at Jimmy Kimmel, and it was really funny to watch this nice guy transformed into C-Diddy. He's working Kimmel and working the crowd and the band, and you're like, whoa, who is this guy? But when we saw him perform at the Roxy, you're like, holy smokes, this guy is really good. But you don’t know what this means in the grand scheme of the world because people had been doing this for over 10 years at this point, or maybe it was six or seven in 2003.
So when we got to Finland to the world championships, there was this whole mess of other things we had to deal with. One, we had just bombed Bagdad in March. And we had the idea, we were going to a world peace event. How were they going to handle us? And then what did the rest of the world have to offer to air guitar? Maybe they were all really good, and maybe there were tons of C-Diddys, and as Bjorn shows up and he does his thing, we’re like, wow, maybe Dan's going to win it here because we don’t know what European judges are like. So really there was a very interesting story that was unfolding in front of us and that’s why the movie's cut the way it is. Because we’re trying to share with you what our experience was.
BG: Why do you think David was so good?
AL: I think C-Diddy has airness. And I really believe it. It is something I have experienced. When you see somebody who's bad perform and then you see someone who's technically proficient, has stage presence and charisma, and has airness - they are a champion. You can totally recognize that. I saw it just this last time. I've been to Finland four world championships in a row so I've seen a lot of air guitarists, national champions who represent their countries, and it's always interesting. The people who show up who are the best of the best. It's fascinating to see what they have to bring and everybody brings something different or unique or phenomenal. The judging is always very interesting. Now they have five judges and drop two of the scores, highest and lowest, and take the two middle scores because there have been judging debacles, Olympic-sized scandals going on.
So you know why C-Diddy is so good. You watch the performance. You see this in the theaters, the way it happens: when LA comes around the film, you look at audience and they're cheering, and you know we’ve turned a corner and everybody is sold. People come into Air Guitar Nation not knowing what to expect. Is this going to be tongue in cheek? Spinal Tap gone wrong? But I think when they see the family side of things and when they see C-Diddy perform, something happens, and that’s when people start to care. Like when I screened the movie for test screeners, people were laughing at first and by the end they were just not laughing. They were quiet. I was like, "Omigod, it's not good. The movie's not good. I've done something wrong." And then I asked people what their experience was after I screened it, and they were like, "Omigod, I was sooo into it. I cried when C-Diddy got married!" They'd actually became invested.
BG: Was there any one point when you realized it would make a good film?
AL: I worked on documentaries - that’s kind of where I started. I learned from Ondi Timoner - I worked with her on two projects. So I have a love for documentaries, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to return to filmmaking. Because I'd been working in television a long time. And I wanted to direct a film. What I learned in the process was how good a story it was.
When Conor and I - he'd gone through a lot of the material and he started to do string-outs - started to look it, he was like, "I HATE Bjorn Turoque. I do. I fucking hate him." I was like, "Really?!" Because I knew Dan Crane and I thought, wow, that’s weird because I love that guy. What am I missing? So I knew I had to go out and find more of the family element because we didn’t have that. We didn’t have that stuff.
BG: Why such hate?
AL: Because I think Bjorn Turoque is kind of an asshole. I think Dan says it himself, "Bjorn Turoque is, uh, kind of, y'know, a dick!" Dan Crane is a nice guy. Dan Crane is a sweetheart, a nice, sensitive Jewish boy. I think we had captured Bjorn Turoque more on camera than we had captured Dan Crane. So I called him up and said, "What are you doing?" "I'm going to pick up my grandmother and going to see my mother," and he let me go along. That’s the genius of these guys - they were willing to open up their hearts and be exposed on both sides, as performers and as people.
BG: What about the contrast between the sincere Europeans and the tongue-in-cheek Yanks? Did you see that coming?
AL: Y'know there's a certain element of shit-talking between performers. You see them backstage, trash-talking, like wrestling. There's a certain amount of trash-talking between performers, more so in America because we have that. But Mike the judge from Austria totally got it – he was like, "Bjorn, he should change his name to France and call himself Bjorn Toulouse!" Hilarious. The Europeans have a very subtle sense of humor but some of them are much more serious. Funky Jordy from Holland really came in third but because they screwed up his scoring it looked like he came in seventh. In 2003 there were screw ups in scoring, but we couldn’t really put it into the story because it would have kinda robbed from it. So much goes on in documentary shooting - you kinda have to decide, what the most important story is to tell that'll give everybody the ride that you really want to give them. But the thing I saw was Funky Jordy being a little bit bitter - you could see it. At one point he says, "I'd be really interested to see this guy, C-Diddy."
But even with David Jung... I always find it funny. When C-Diddy is watching Bjorn Turoque talk to Zac Munro after he's won at the 45 Special, you could see it in David's face. There's an honest look of concern. He's a little bit worried and a little bit jealous - there's no faking that. The camera will tell everything. You can't talk yourself out of that. That look speaks a thousand words for me. He was serious about it. I think he really wanted to win. He didn’t travel all that way not to kick some butt.
BG: So you are thinking of doing a trilogy of air guitar docs?
AL: Air guitar always delivers - there's always a story. There's always a drama - it's always hilarious. You never know who's coming around the corner - it could be a 16-year-old contender who no one even knows about, and he could just rock! We were at an all-ages competition and a 6-year-old girl named Maddie did it to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, and she was just on fire, so much intensity! She got 6.0 across the board, and she won actually and tied with this guy who was in his 20s. She was pretty great and she beat her brother and father! The first family of air guitar is what we called 'em.