In 2015, desperate to get his favorite band, Foo Fighters, to play in Cesena, a small town near Rimini, Italian marine geologist Fabio Zaffagnini came up with a rather unorthodox solution. Reportedly inspired by the prank pulled by the team of “School of Rock,” which saw Jack Black and Richard Linklater asking Led Zeppelin to let them use “Immigrant Song” in a video recorded on set, he decided to invite “The Rockin’1000”—1,000 guitarists, drummers and singers —to play their song “Learn to Fly.” Simultaneously.
Raising $50,000 through a crowdfunding site, Zaffagnini started recruiting potential allies and musicians with the help of his friends, including director Anita Rivaroli. One year in the planning, the open-air event produced a YouTube video that quickly went viral, amassing 55 million views to date. Rivaroli was only meant to be in charge of shooting the original video, but after a while she realized she wanted to dig deeper. Reaching out to the participants through the event’s online platform, she went on to record those conversations, now featured prominently in the film “We Are the Thousand,” which has its international premiere at IDFA in Frontlight.
“There were guys from Sicily, who drove for miles and miles at their own expense just to play this song,” she says. “It wasn’t just about fandom—I wanted to understand this connection between music and someone’s private life. I didn’t want to do a hagiography. The Rockin’1000 is the reason why we are telling this story, but music is at the center of it all. I was really moved by some stories, like Renato’s for example—a captain who was diagnosed with cancer just before he joined our project. I also empathized with girls—it was my personal aim to help them open up,” she says, mentioning a drummer called Giada, who after parting ways with two bands found courage to perform again. “In a way, this project helped people deal with things they just couldn’t deal with before.”
The same could be said for Zaffagnini himself, who had to overcome his own shyness in order to see the whole project through. “He is such an introvert; he doesn’t want to talk about this private life. He used to be a nerd, really insecure, but when you achieve something, it gives you courage to do more,” she says.
The result was a triumph of willpower over knowledge (“At first, we didn’t even know how to make all these people play in synch,” says Rivaroli, revealing that the team eventually settling for click-track). And, much to Rivaroli’s surprise, the band even made contact shortly after, inviting Zaffagnini and friends to Walla Walla in Seattle to meet them. “Fabio told me that Foo Fighters are the kind of band that likes to stay in touch with their fans,” she explains. “They invite them on stage during gigs, they reply to them on social media. They want to be seen as normal guys, not rock stars.”
The trip was stressful, even though the director admits to being “more of a Nirvana girl.” “We were really, really nervous,” recounts Rivaroli, who has known Zaffagnini since high school. My camera broke down, so I was in a panic. When we got there, [frontman] Dave Grohl was very friendly, served us drinks and wanted to understand how we managed to pull it off with all these musicians playing together at the same time. We spent a lot of time just talking about the sound. Then they said they wanted to come to Cesena.”
They were as good as their word: Foo Fighters performed there the same year, predictably opening their set with “Learn to Fly.” “I f—ing cried,” Grohl told the audience, composed mostly of the Rockin’1000 crowd. “To see you people, singing our song for the whole f—ing world … To me, it was the greatest moment.”
But as well as inspiring a movie, the video not only served its purpose by bringing the band to Cesena, it also created a new community, with The Rockin’1000 continuing to perform classic rock songs all over Europe. “We didn’t expect it would go that well,” says Rivaroli. “We didn’t imagine Foo Fighters would really answer our plea, and now, when these anonymous musicians play massive stadiums instead of their room or a local bar, it’s the same feeling. There is a lot of ego in music, but this project tried to take it out of the equation. Everyone had to be on the same level for it to work. Now, every time they play someplace new, the biggest rock band on earth is just getting bigger.”