An engaging, fun and funny documentary, “Rock-Afire Explosion” may not mean much to you if you’re, say, older than 35 or younger than 25.
But for most of us in that age range, it’s almost a sacred name, maybe not on par with The Beatles or Rolling Stones (as one in this documentary suggests), but it’s still a key, lasting component of our childhood.
The “Rock-Afire Explosion” is, after all, the band that serenaded the lucky kids at their birthday, at Showbiz Pizza Place, and this documentary from filmmaker Brett Whitcomb, chronicling the legacy of that seminal pizza joint.
Okay, maybe the “band”’s legacy is a bit exaggerated, but it’s not for the film’s subjects, two young men who are obsess over a collection of animatronic “singing” puppets in a way that once prompted William Shatner to famously exhort “Get a life!” These guys have Billy Bob tattoos, or dream of assembling a completed, authentic recreation of the restaurant’s famous act, or both.
They talk about Showbiz, about Fats and Mitzi, in ways that lead one to believe that they spend much more time thinking about them than they should.
Showbiz, for those not in the know, was the forerunner, competitor, then partner to Chuck E Cheese’s in the 1980s. Their band was called “The Rock-Afire Explosion,” a collection of animatronic puppets, anthropomorphized animals that included a giant mouse, a gorilla, a space dog, a giant spider, and a country-bumpkin bear who played a banjo. When Chuck E. Cheese’s bought out Showbiz, they retired Showbiz’s more advanced (and consequently more expensive to run) puppet band in favor of their own.
I was all set to write them off as lunatics, until I realized about 45 minutes in that each time I go into a Chuck E. Cheese’s, I have the same twinge of bitterness that they do, at a piece of my own childhood lost to corporate greed.
The film’s biggest allure, though, is a detailed visit to the factory/workshop of Aaron Fechter, who created the puppets, then partnered with a businessman to pair his rockers up with pizza, video games, and other gadgets that continue to enchant kids and pester parents to this day.
Fechter’s story is also the most poignant, as he wanders around his now-empty shop, reminiscing on a life’s work rendered irrelevant, with crates full of puppets that he’s slowly selling off to collectors and fans. With original TV commercials and archival footage of the puppets being manufactured, it’s a nice homage, and it’s sad to see what’s left of some of them literally melting away to nothing in the warehouse.
The film turns touching when Fechter gets emotional singing, oddly enough, one of Showbiz’s birthday songs, which he does as a tribute to a co-worker who died a few years before, and ending on a fun note, with one last public performance from the Explosion, with Fats on the keyboard and lead vocals, the way it should be.
Rating: 4 ½ Yaps out of 5