Documentary review: 'The Rock-afire Explosion'
While we're waiting to see how furry fandom is treated by Fanboy Confessional, now might be a good time to discuss a documentary that presents another fandom with respect.
In 2007, a video of an animatronic animal band performing Bubba Sparxxx's Ms. New Booty went viral. Director Brett Whitcomb and writer Bradford Thomason followed the video back to its source, and in 2008 produced a 72-minute documentary about the band and its fans: The Rock-afire Explosion (trailer).
Rock-afire boom . . . and bust
Rock-afire, like furry, is very much a niche interest with respect to other fandoms (comics, science-fiction, anime, etc.) in terms of how many people attend events. When you're dedicated to a chain of family entertainment restaurants whose heyday started in the 1980s, the fandom must be pretty small. If you further limit it to fans nostalgic for the band that used to play there, the number is smaller still.
The Rock-afire Explosion was the work of Aaron Fechter, inventor of the Whac-A-Mole. In 1980 he teamed up with a group of businessmen to open a chain of restaurants, Showbiz Pizza Place, which would feature the animatronic band constructed by Aaron's company, Creative Engineering.
At its height in the early 80s, Creative Engineering employed 325 people and built more than 200 Rock-afire Explosions in a four-year period. Showbiz Pizza expanded rapidly, only to discover they were losing money. In a desperate attempt to stay in business, they merged with a similarly-situated competitor – Chuck E. Cheese's.
One condition of the merger was that Aaron had to transfer all copyrights of the band and its characters to Showbiz Pizza. Since Rock-afire was his invention, he wanted to keep creative control, but this was unacceptable. To add insult to injury, he was expected to hand the copyrights over for nothing.
Aaron and Showbiz Pizza slowly parted ways, and by 1990 the merger was complete. Most restaurants now used the Chuck E. Cheese label; though the animatronic band was still there, they were replaced with new characters atop the old equipment. A corporate video set to muzak describes how to dismantle the Rock-afire stage and coldly instructs, "destroy all of these props as they will not be used again."
Whitcomb's documentary only presents six fans; it's primarily the story of two of them: Chris and Aaron. Chris Thrash was a childhood fan of the Rock-afire Explosion. With the original chain long-gone, he decided he wanted one of the bands: "The show was really for me; I wanted it where Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again." Eventually he managed to contact Aaron, who still had unused bands in storage, and bought one from him. Next, Chris started programming his own shows with new music, resulting in the online video that went viral.
Whitcomb gives depth to Chris and Aaron. Chris is visibly worried about his father's battle with cancer and how much time they have left together. "Problems like that, or problems at work, sometimes if you just can't handle the stress of life, people pick different ways to relieve that. I don't choose to go to drugs or crime or anything like that. This is my escape from reality."
Aaron, for his own part, is now the sole employee of Creative Engineering (the last few people being let go in 2003). With its sprawling rooms and storage spaces, he solders on as best he can with remarkably good humor, but with a hint of regret. In one scene, while he reminisces about a past friend who wrote a children's song about getting older, he finds himself starting to cry.
Throughout the documentary, Whitcomb never talks down to his subjects – in fact he doesn't talk at all, instead allowing the fans to speak for themselves. Their performance is heartfelt and genuine, accompanied by a surprising amount of surviving video footage.
Chasing the dream
There's always an inclination to laugh at people during documentaries like this, like one fan's tattoos, or as another starts to put on a costume. Mocking those who are different is an all-too common sociological trait, and schadenfreude is even easier from behind the safety of one's screen. It reveals more about the viewer than the person being mocked, highlighting personality traits we consider desirable; how we judge others, and evaluate social worth. Extreme fans tend to get stereotyped – we forget or ignore that individuals are more than the sum of their obsessions (did you know the Tron guy can fly a plane?). But there's no mockery here, just honesty.
What makes this documentary work is that it shows how fandoms help people derive a measure of happiness from their hobby. The world is a complicated place; if happiness is attained through some forgotten piece of pop culture, so what? Not everyone makes the best decisions in life, but how many of us have aggressively pursued a challenging dream, and achieved it?
Chris held down multiple jobs for two years to reach his goal of having his own Rock-afire band, and programming it is something he now enjoys. Aaron started his own multi-million dollar company with his inventions, and while it may not have worked out in the long run, the spirit of what he started still lives on. Along the way, they both fell in love and got married (though not to each other).
Overall, this documentary is an interesting little window into the lives of two fans. I don't know how much interest it would hold for furry fans, but if you've been in any fandom for any amount of time, you start to get this vibe, of community and of comfort from making connections with others who share similar interests. I don't personally "get" the appeal of the animatronic band – and neither do I expect anyone else to "get" furry – but while watching the Rock-afire Explosion, that fandom vibe was definitely there. Lastly, I should say I liked the background music used in this production, which included Super Furry Animals - an appropriate choice!