Weekend Weirdness: The Rock-afire Explosion Explores Showbiz Pizza. Plus, White Fang, Alligator, “Michael Draper” Returns, and Dracula’s Music Cabinet
Posted on Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
It’s a crazy, mixed up world and we are thankful for movies, sans New Moon, that offer proof. Weekend Weirdness takes a look at such films, whether it’s via a new trailer for a provocative indie, a mini-review, or news of an excavated cult classic. The works discussed herein tend to make cinema a little more interesting, and in the best cases do the same for life or at least a blown weekend.
The year, 2009, delivered a number of knockout documentaries that were better made and more meditative than their premises let on. For over a year, The Rock-afire Explosion has popped-and-fizzled on my radar, until a screener finally arrived in the mail last week underneath a hate letter from my ex, Sallie Mae. Pop Candy’s Whitney Matheson—a cool guest on the /Filmcast—also received one, a screener that is, and she promptly called Rock-afire the best film of the year for a documentary or otherwise. I wouldn’t go that far, but Rock-afire Explosion makes for true-life entertainment every bit as tasty as a slice and a cold beer to a divorced, thankless, balding dad tolerating a Showbiz Pizza in the late ’80s. In other words, this isn’t some Chuck E. Cheese shit.
No, this is the real deal: a definitive look at the titular, animatronic house band and dreamy pizza parlor establishments that did for family dining what the NES did for home gaming—except Showbiz Pizza Place ruled at video games and it had a ball room.
Of course, like with The King of Kong—the reigning heavyweight champ of ’80s subculture docs—The Rock-afire Explosion is not only a look back but a wonderful spotlight forward, in this case landing on an Alabama dude inexplicably named Chris Thrash. Thrash worked for a few years mowing lawns, doing odd jobs, and double-grinding as a deejay at a skating rink to save enough duckets to purchase the entire Rock-afire Explosion band, as stored in large, individual, unopened crates since ’83. Thrash’s humidity-controlled set-up, garaged in his backyard, mirrors the original set-up at Showbiz and he’s since become a YouTube, and unlikely Pitchfork-approved, sensation by posting contemporary songs played by the band…
As one might expect of such a hobbyist, Thrash is an old school geek with a few eccentric traits. For one, he only drinks Mountain Dew—no water or milk—as he has since his days as a teenager. Thrash also met his sweetheart/wife at the local skating rink, and she doesn’t look or sound a day over 18, at least in the film. In an oddly emotional scene, Thrash explains his relief and excitement at discovering fellow Rock-afire fans online…
I was just on the internet one day, bored, and I said, ‘You know what, let me type this Showbiz Pizza in,’ and sure enough, I come up on this guy named Travis, and he was a fan also. And he realized there was nothing out there and he brought a lot of [Rock-afire] fans together that I didn’t even know existed. I thought maybe I was just crazy or something…I thought it was just a forgotten subject because it got to where if I went to Chuck E. Cheese and asked somebody about [Rock-afire], it was gettin’ to where people was like, ‘What is it now?’ I was like, ‘Gosh, it’s just been totally forgotten and it was so great.’”
What’s great about Thrash is that, from a sociological and cultural standpoint, he makes sense as a valuable, pre-Internet peg whose contribution to life is to preserve fun history sans the corrupted, modern air of irony. Apparently, Showbiz Pizza is better remembered in the South East, and I still recall the month that the closest Showbiz turned into Chuck E. Cheese. It was the first time as a youth that I recognized and studied problems with fonts, design, presentation, advertising, and corporate soul-lessness: it was my version of a “fake Chanel bag on the street” and it blew my mind. What was weird: parents didn’t notice a difference at first, but all the kids did. They were pissed. And, as seen here, several older fans grew into Rock-afire enthusiasts who took this observation to heart forever. If this is confusing, it’s similar to the mindset of “Van Hagar, die” amongst Diamond Dave/Van Halen loyalists, but more relevant.
However, I fully expected to hear Thrash’s impassioned fanboy story in the doc before I pressed play. It’s really the testimony of Aaron Fechter—the brilliant inventor and visionary who built and mass-manufactured the band—that blew me away. (He also created Whac-a-Mole!)
As the head of a company called Creative Engineering, Fechter saw his business explode at the age of 28 coinciding with the rise of Showbiz until the pizza establishment encompassed some 200 restaurants; suddenly, his Orlando-based business had expanded to 300 employees and was pulling in millions of dollars, complete with helicopter rides and a visit from Michael Jackson. With his good looks, bright shirts, enthusiasm, and work ethic, Fechter reminded me of John Carmack and John Romero of id Software rolled into one optimistic, easy going beast.
Where the doc’s plot excels: Fechter inexplicably still owns the warehouse where the Rock-afire was produced, and it remains in an eerie state of discontinued assembly. His workforce dropped from hundreds to a mere three people by 2003, and as of 2008, it was just him. Fechter takes the filmmakers on a tour of the abandoned warehouse, and we see plaster molds for ears and faces, costumes, and tipped-over boxes that have been sitting untouched for decades.
As Fechter shared his ambitious goals for The Rock-afire Explosion—movies, merch, etc—to the camera and described the care he took in creating characters like Beach Bear (the guitarist) and Mitzi Mozzarella (the cheerleader), I began to realize that he was a Jim Henson-like genius who never got his due. (He kept the copyrights; the owners of Showbiz soon allowed The Rock-afire Explosion to be stripped and reused as knock-offs at Chuck E. Cheese’s nationwide). And yet, even though Fechter is not a household name, his creations probably had just as much influence on my young mind as Henson, and clearly those of many others.
Decades later, with Where the Wild Things Are earning acclaim, including from /Film, animatronic Teddy Ruxpin jokes being made on 30 Rock, and the retro-fur hipster aesthetic of Wes Anderson‘s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Fechter’s creations and style are still quite relevant within the zeitgeist.
I dig the fact that Fechter and his drop-dead gorgeous wife, and Thrash and his wife, all met over an interest in Rock-afire. It’s a matchmaking MacGuffin random enough to birth a soggy mumblecore adaptation. I was fully prepared to dismiss the doc as creepy, makeshift nostalgia pandering, but it never qualifies. Filmmakers, Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason, deserve props for pulling this footage together with such an intelligent, keen eye for detail and real emotion. The use of music by Super Furry Animals is inspired, and I recommend that everyone check it out. The doc is equally sad and upbeat, the doc equivalent of two pre-Depression Christmases. Here’s the trailer…
In the future, Weekend Weirdness will not consist of such lengthy reviews. Here are a few other things I’ve decided to include in this week’s edition. Thanks to everyone who responded via email and Twitter with support and suggestions for the column’s continuation.
With many in the industry eyeing the success of next month’s Princess and the Frog from Disney, I was excited to see the following trailer for a traditionally animated French film entitled White Fang.
However, according to a commenter at Twitch Film—where the above trailer was recently posted—White Fang is several years old and was never finished. Whether this is accurate or not (note: emails from two companies involved are expected), traditional animation that radiates with this type of hand drawn warmth is due for a comeback in my opinion. Also, per the trailer’s ending, is this a family film about dog fighting? Interesting. I’m not sure how many more plastic-faced chubby kids and rubber-tentacled aliens I can withstand from a distance, Pixar or not. What do you think?
The jealousy I felt when I learned that Mondo Tees‘ Justin Ishmael had won the following board game on eBay for 1980′s Alligator—one of the best creature features ever to star Jackie Brown‘s Robert Forster and my idol, Michael Gazzo—was worthy of a straight-jacket. If you have not seen this film, throw your eyeroll into the nearest fast-food drive through and proceed to Netflix…
Here’s the trailer for the strangers (beware of the sewer, dudes, and Florida)…
Some readers may recall that I posted a rather controversial article theorizing that The Office‘s Michael Scott and Mad Men‘s Don Draper were possibly brothers from another. The article received several memorable responses, but /Film reader, Tyler Jacobs, decided to create a mash-up. I feel the result is weird enough for Weekend Weirdness, but you be the judge…and repeat after me, “Long Live the New Flesh aka Michael Draper!”
If you’ve made it this far, you’re possible one of many readers who love—but are also a tad over—listening to the Vampyros Lesbos Sexadelic Dance Party soundtrack. Back in 2006, I hosted a party for the film and soundtrack at a place called Studio A complete with blood-cupcakes. It’s one of the most beloved cult soundtracks of the decade, and the search is always on for a worthy alternative. If you’re on the lookout, I recommend a concept album for an imagined film from 1969 entitled Dracula’s Music Cabinet by The Vampires of Dartmoore. This is what it looks like, and until now, it’s been considered a rarity…
It’s been circulating online for sometime, and was recently re-released by Finders Keepers Records, along with a newer release entitled Dance With Action: Science Fiction Dance Party. We fully endorse storyboarding these make-believe films on your apartment walls using cat blood and magic dust. Attach pics in the comments and then walk to the nearest police department. Until next week…
If you’re a filmmaker and have a weird new film that Hunter might be interested in, you can contact him per a screener, screening, or info at h.attila/gmail or on Twitter.