In July of 2015, a YouTube video began circulating the internet and accumulated millions of views within days. The video was uploaded by a project called Rockin’ 1000, a group of 1000 musicians who all gathered in a field in the Italian city of Cesena to perform a massive cover of the Foo Fighters song “Learn to Fly.”
Hundreds of singers, guitarists, bassists, and drummers performed the alt-rock classic with surprising skill and infectious energy. The singers jumped up and down and waved their hands in the air with every word, the guitarists and bassists put on entertaining shows of rockstar swagger within their designated spaces, and the drummers pounded away with ear-to-ear smiles.
The real heart of the video, though, comes after the performance. A skinny man with longish hair and wild eyes steps into the center of the crowd and addresses the camera. Fabio Zaffagnini, the mastermind behind Rockin’ 1000, pours his heart out about the year’s worth of toil it took to bring the project to fruition and the true reason for the effort: to get the Foo Fighters to come to Cesena and hold a concert.
In the almost six years since the world was introduced to Rockin’ 1000, the “Learn to Fly” cover has become the stuff of rock music legend. Now, an in-depth look at the entire project is revealed in “We are the Thousand,” a documentary showcase for the 2021 SXSW film festival.
From the inception of the idea, to the backbreaking work of bringing the dream to life, to the incredible aftermath, the full story of Rockin’ 1000 is a moving and irresistible homage to the unifying power of music.
Rockin’ 1000: Assembling the World’s Biggest Rock Band
It is easy to see a lot of oneself in a guy like Fabio Zaffagnini. He loves music and has daydreams of seeing his favorite bands perform in his little city, and he shares these dreams with his equally music-obsessed friends.
When it comes to his passion, Fabio is no ordinary guy.
In the first few minutes of the film, several of Fabio’s friends recall him telling them that he wants the Foo Fighters to play in Cesena, and he has a plan to make it happen – get a group of 1000 musicians to play at once in a tribute that nobody could ignore.
Understandably, none of Fabio’s friends really took him seriously at first. Most of them shared the sentiment that it was an amazing idea, but that making it happen was impossible. Their doubts were not misplaced–hundreds of singers, guitarists, drummers, and bassists all in one place playing in sync together sounds virtually impossible.
Fabio and his team started by launching a website with no explanation or context to build intrigue in an office resembling every cliche trendy startup full of excited young faces and Rockin’ 1000 merchandise scattered throughout the room, All the site mentioned was a plan involving the Foo Fighters.
Curiosity took over, and the team received a flood of emails and phone calls asking what the mysterious Foo Fighters plan was. When the time came to reveal it, the truly wild ambition of the plan came to light. A YouTube video revealed the plan of getting the Foo Fighters to Cesena with Rockin’ 1000, and a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of 40,000 euros was launched as well.
As if raising this much money and getting the attention of one of the biggest bands in the world was not hard enough, in a world of internet trends with short life cycles, Fabio’s team had to keep their foot on the gas and produce new creative content each week to keep the message in circulation.
They hosted a fundraising party for fundraising, created a cartoon in the local dialect, and kept spreading the news like it was their 9-5 (which, at this point, it basically was). At this point, the true heart of the film and Rockin’ 1000 shines through.
Rockin’ 1000: The Unity of 1000 Musicians
Hundreds of Italian musicians saw the call to action to get the Foo Fighters to Cesena, and all of them wanted a piece of the action. Of course, they all had their doubts, but they still had enough faith to try.
This faith is what brings 1000 musicians from all walks of life together, and what turns the documentary into a tearjerker. Men and women, young and old, from heavy metal fanatics to classically trained blues guitarists, some already in bands and some never having sung in public before, all come together to be a part of one of the most ambitious efforts in music history.
The only required submission to join Rockin’ 1000 was a video audition, and hundreds of people sent them in. From bathrooms, bedrooms, and living rooms, with countless different styles of instruments and vocals, the videos seemed endless and gave Rockin’ 1000 its biggest breath of life yet.
However, like the plot of any great movie (and this whole story feels remarkably like a Hollywood blockbuster rather than the true story it is), the quest cannot be completely easy. From incredibly tight funding to the logistics of organizing a 1000-person band, the mood quickly darkens as tensions arise to make you forget that this concert already successfully took place half a decade ago.
The mood of the film swings from mountainous highs to cavernous lows, with reality constantly gnashing its ugly teeth and Fabio’s relentless optimism saving the day over and over again. The grounds are successfully set up, but there is worry that nobody will show. Everybody shows, but the first rehearsal of the song is chaotic. The whole process is riveting, mirroring any other band’s pre-gig drama but amplified by 1000.
Of course, Rockin’ 1000 perseveres, and it is impossible not to smile at their success, which feels akin to watching the good guys of a superhero movie emerge victorious. More than the success of the endeavor, however, true satisfaction comes from the people. A heartwarming sequence reveals the participants as diverse, ranging from office workers to architects, ship captains, stay-at-home parents, and an adorable young girl who says that while her dream is to be an astronaut, Rockin’ 1000 may make her want to be a musician instead.
Through snippets of character revelation that are only a few seconds long each, members of the enormous band establish a real connection with the viewer. One man, clearly fighting to contain his emotions, reveals that he had recently been diagnosed with a serious medical condition and that Rockin’ 1000 gave him the chance to fulfill two lifelong dreams: to get an electric guitar, and to play it in front of people.
It is these moments that make watching the crowd of musicians stand together with barely contained excitement enjoyable and emotional, and make returning to a six-year-old viral video vastly more exciting than it otherwise would be.
Learn to Fly: Getting the Foo Fighters to Cesena
When the time comes for the final take to be recorded, the sound of 1000 people playing “Learn to Fly” is enough to give you goosebumps and make you rewind the movie to watch it again. The Foo Fighters’ classic, years removed from its relevance as a 90s alt-rock hit, has never felt or sounded more meaningful than when it is performed by hundreds of people unapologetically having the time of their lives.
The rest, as they say, is history. When the Rockin’ 1000 made themselves known to the world with their “Learn to Fly” cover in 2015, the video went viral within days, reached Dave Grohl, and got the Foo Fighters to Cesena.
It is all the unseen details in between these moments in the documentary that flesh out the rest of the story in an extremely satisfying way. When Fabio sees the finished video for the first time, he cries and smiles the entire time, saying that he hopes it gets 1 million hits. He is blown away when it garners tens of millions within days.
Seeing the news coverage of the video this time around is much more personal. Having developed an attachment to Fabio, the people of Rockin’ 1000, their ambition and hard work that were rewarded more than anyone could have guessed.
In fact, the success of the video got Rockin’ 1000 not one, but two meetings with the Foo Fighters. Before the Foo Fighters made good on their promise to visit Cesena, the members of Rockin’ 1000 were invited to Walla Walla, a town in Washington state that hosted the Foo Fighters and flew in Fabio & Co. to meet them.
When they arrive in Walla Walla, Rockin’ 1000 are stopped for pictures and autographs, treated like bona fide rock stars. The tables turn delightfully when Fabio is introduced to Dave Grohl, and the mastermind behind Cesena’s enormous band is like any other starstruck fan in the presence of his hero. Grohl, in his typical fashion, is a regular dude throughout the conversation, rapping with Fabio about his reaction to the video and guaranteeing that the Foo Fighters will perform in Cesena.
Fabio and his friends leave Walla Walla like kids leaving Disney World, having just experienced the moment of a lifetime and being unable to process it all. Dave Grohl hardly gives them time to process, as the Foo Fighters arrive in Cesena shortly after to play for Rockin’ 1000 in a small indoor venue.
Before the show, Grohl and Fabio talk backstage, with Grohl asking for advice on how to make the show as memorable as possible.
Per Fabio’s suggestion, the Foo Fighters open with “Learn to Fly”–Grohl is barely audible over the entire crowd singing along. At one point, Fabio crowd surfs to reach the stage when Grohl invites him up, and he is offered a seat in the guitar throne that Grohl famously used during his touring cycle after breaking his leg in Europe.
Grohl also calls up a Rockin’ 1000 drummer with the very tall mohawk that became a star in the original video, who takes over on drums as Taylor Hawkins takes the mic to sing a cover of “Under Pressure.”
Rockin’ 1000 in Concert: From Fans to Stars
The Foo Fighters played in Cesena. The one goal of Rockin’ 1000 was accomplished. It was the perfect end to the perfect story, except the story was not ready to end there. With their mission achieved, Rockin’ 1000 were in a dreamy state of limbo until more emails started arriving begging the group to continue making music. After the success of the first endeavor, Fabio’s team saw no reason to stop there.
One year after the initial gathering of Rockin’ 1000 to cover “Learn to Fly,” the world’s biggest rock band is reassembled for a real concert in a real stadium. Set up across a soccer field, familiar faces from the group’s first meeting reconvene and pick up where they left off like family members, which is exactly how they view themselves.
When the stage is set and rehearsal is done, even a rain shower does not deter the band’s spirits. Watching the hundreds of musicians take the field to a crowd of adoring fans is even more satisfying than watching them attend the Foo Fighters concert they worked so hard to earn. Rockin’ 1000, the world’s biggest rock band fueled by the passion of every individual member, had earned their place among the rock stars instead of looking up at them.
As the band opens with The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” the credits begin to roll, and the audiences are left with the sensation of great satisfaction and triumph. Any fan of music who has dreamed of being famous will resonate deeply with “We are the Thousand,” a touching and personal documentary that single-handedly makes the SXSW 2021 film festival worth attending.