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SXSW 2021: We Are the Thousand

Being a big Foo Fighters and live music fan, when I saw this listed at South by Southwest festival, I immediately added it to my watchlist. We’re currently in the third lockdown here in the UK and it’s pretty much been a year without any live music performances or big festivals now, so there was something transcending about this documentary. While there are certainly more pressing causes captured via documentary format this year, if like me you’re craving a musical escape, this will definitely be worth catching.

Directed by Anita Rivaroli, We Are the Thousand centres on the hugely impressive and heartwarming endeavour of Fabio Zaffagnini and his hardworking team back in 2015. They launched a campaign to bring together 1000 musicians, comprised of 250 singers, 150 bass players, 250 drummers and 350 guitarists, to perform the Foo Fighters’ rock classic “Learn to Fly” in unison. The goal? To persuade Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters to visit their small Italian village of Cesena and finally play a gig there.

While initially this project may sound a little hollow, Rivarioli delves into the incredible technical and logistical struggles, along with the surprisingly emotional impacts of the performance and the experience as a whole. Along with the financial implications, the team faced an almost impossible task – how do you get this many musicians organised to perform as one? Timing and syncing up was a huge issue, particularly with the sea of drummers, so a clever visual cue was rigged up to help aid the conductor and percussionists.

Primarily unfolding across the day of recording, we see the behind-the-scenes practices prior to the final performance, with the first attempt going spectacularly wrong. While we know the outcome of the final take due to the fact the video has notched over 55 million views to date(!), it’s still fascinating from a technical viewpoint to see how it all came together. However the real beauty of the documentary is the human stories behind the project; while the primary object was to get the attention of Dave Grohl, many musicians simply wanted to be part of something monumental – it’s not everyday something like this happens. Rivarioli features numerous talking head interviews with the many musicians, ranging from a father who wanted to share a unique experience with his talented son to a terminally ill individual who wanted to capture one last amazing memory.

When it’s time for the final take the suspense ramps up following the rocky warmups, but you know when the chorus hits that this is something truly special. Watching that many musicians performing perfectly as one and fully in the moment, is truly a sight to behold, transporting you back to Summer days at similar outdoor concerts. It’s such a beautiful performance to witness, demonstrating the power of music to bring us all together, particularly when the arts have been so affected during the Coronavirus pandemic. The performance, paired with the emotional stories behind the musicians, unashamedly moved me to tears.

But that’s not the end of the story. Their impressive accomplishment inevitably caught the attention of the Foo Fighters, who did indeed perform at Cesena whilst in the middle of a European tour three months later. Dave Grohl even invited Fabio and other notable musicians onstage to perform with them in a moving cover. While the project was a huge success and the shared experience a highlight for many, the band members didn’t want to stop there, so they formed the Rockin’ 1000.

Verdict

We Are the Thousand is a surprisingly moving documentary, celebrating the power and importance of music. While it’s not highlighting the most pressing of causes, it’s such a joyful and transportive 80 minutes which I certainly enjoyed.

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