SXSW21: We Are the Thousand

The soulful Pop Theology duo of Ryan Parker and Benjamin PowerGriffin break down the new documentary, We Are the Thousand, which has its North American premiere at SXSW21 today.

RP: have to admit, I only requested a link for We Are the Thousand because I knew you might dig it, being the music expert around here. So I was shocked by how much the film moved me. A quick summary: the documentary follows the formation of the Rockin’ 1000, a rock and roll cover band comprised of, yes, 1000 singers, drummers, guitarists, bassists, and assorted other musicians. They come from all walks of life and range from 8 years old to well into their 60s. Virtually none of them are professional musicians and, as one member says, “We keep our shitty jobs to pay for our dreams.” It’s the brain child of Fabio Zaffagnini, who assembled the band in an attempt to woo the Foo Fighters to play a show in their small town of Cesena, Italy. What might seem on the surface to be the chronicling of a publicity stunt quickly turns into a deep, joy-filled meditation on the power of music, community, identity, and fandom. I found it to be the perfect medicine (along with the vaccine, of course), for these waning pandemic days. What did you think?

BPG: I’m happy you mentioned the pandemic because, as Colleen and I were watching it, we were both moved to tears from simply missing live music. We’ve long treated live shows as an element of spiritual life–to meet people, to sing with people, to be moved with people is a deeply holy thing. While this certainly could be read as a gimmicky viral stunt, the filmmakers were smart to keep the focus on a handful of the individual musicians and how this experience affected their lives. There’s a line where someone reflects on the experience that these 1000 people have gotten to share together that “if heaven exists, I want it to be like this” and you really get a sense of their sincerity. From the girl who was on the verge of quitting music all together getting a second wind to the man who was facing a terminal illness getting to fulfill a lifelong dream, there is a palpable sense of how much beauty was found in pursuing this seemingly silly premise.

RP: And it’s something of a sociological experiment as well, isn’t it? Can we bring 1000 creative individuals together for a common goal? I’ve lived in America all my life and traveled extensively throughout Europe, and this feels like a distinctly non-American event. I wonder if we’re not too hyper-individualistic. Varied responses to the pandemic would seem to suggest so.

BPG: They do highlight, at one point, the idea that in order to make this massive project work and not just be a cacophonous mess, they needed to sacrifice their egos for the sake of the group. While this is played to mostly humorous effects by the end, likening them to an army almost, there’s a sincere spiritual lesson to be learned there. The film has me thinking about how we must decrease in order to become a functioning part of the Body of Christ. Really, this whole film does a fantastic job highlighting the role that art can play in developing and deepening a sense of communal belonging and joy. 

RP: And talk about joy! This film has it in spades. The Foo Fighters end up playing in Cesena and it is an undeniably powerful moment, one that had me in tears of joy. But, in many ways, it pales in comparison to so many other scenes in the film that you’ve hinted at already: the joy with which the band plays when they nail the final version of “Learning to Fly” for the invitation video; the band playing a show at their hometown soccer stadium in front of a huge, raucous audience; and, ultimately, the individual members talking about how the experience changed or, in some cases, saved their lives.

BPG: Speaking of the pursuit, I was quite taken by Fabio Zaffagnini’s energy. His joy and excitement about the project, combined with a genuine humility about its success, really helped make the experience all the more engaging. I appreciated that the filmmakers didn’t dwell too much on him and the original crew but rather allowed them to be just one part of the sprawling tapestry of experience and love for music. Hell, by the time Foo Fighters themselves show up, they’re only a small part of something much larger! 

We Are the Thousand has its North American Premiere in the Spotlight section of SXSW21. Hopefully it’ll find a larger audience soon.