As a subject for a documentary, a bunch of dudes competing in an air guitar contest might be high on your list—as it was on mine—of totally unnecessary cultural events. I had visions of, at best, a few cheap laughs at the expense of some pathetic kids with delusions of rock-star glory. Did we need another condescending carnival of no-talent exhibitionism in the era of "Jackass," Paris Hilton and the early rounds of "American Idol"?
Well, "Air Guitar Nation" is not that movie. Alexandra Lipsitz’s fleet (82 minutes) doc is certainly funny, but never at the expense of its subjects, who are a surprisingly self-aware and sophisticated bunch. How can you not appreciate a contestant—the heady New Yorker Dan Crane—who dubs himself Bjorn Turoque? Bjorn enters the East Coast air guitar competition, held in the Pussycat Lounge in New York, in hopes of becoming the first American champ to compete in the world finals in Oulu, Finland, where air guitarmanship is not taken lightly. ("Make air, not war!" is one of the mottos of these socially conscious would-be Hendrixes. OK, why not?) Bjorn, however, faces stiff competition from the formidable C-Diddy, the Korean-American David Jung, who gets himself up in a red superhero costume, wearing a Hello Kitty breastplate and flashing a fleshy belly that would give Roger Daltry nightmares. These two are the rivals Lipsitz chooses to follow from the contest in New York to the elimination round in Los Angeles and on to Scandinavia, and they prove to be seriously engaging subjects, particularly the extroverted and articulate Jung, an aspiring actor and comedian who keeps besting the never-say-die Bjorn with his bravura theatricality, extravagant tongue-wagging and "Asian fury" air guitar poses.
Their minutelong demonstrations are judged like gymnastics, on a zero to seven scale that takes into account "technique," "attitude" and the ineffable "airness," of which there is plenty on display. Is it possible to take any of this seriously? The practitioners refer to their obsession as "performance art," (another calls it a sport) and ask us to consider the purity of an "art form" that, unlike all others, cannot be commodified. The nutty thing is, by the end of this jolly, oddly compelling and genuinely suspenseful documentary, the ridiculousness of such notions seems open to genuine debate. If Lypsinka can turn lip-syncing into an art form, we can at least consider the possibility that, as one contestant says, "to err is human, to air guitar, divine."