“The show was really for me. I wanted it so Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again, because it was always going to be mine.” – Chris Thrash
The Rock-afire Explosion (2008) is a documentary about a very specific and possibly entirely unknown fandom. Showbiz Pizza was a regional pizza and arcade chain that was scattered across the U.S. It was sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but slightly different. What is particularly special about Showbiz Pizza, and the focus of this documentary, is an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion that played shows for kids. These were robotic animals programed to play unique songs and skits every hour or so while families ate their generic pizza and drank soda when not throwing skeeballs for tickets to earn lame prizes.
Documentaries about fandom tend to focus on the extremities that people go through for something they love. This obsession, whatever it may be (and I do not use obsession pejoratively in this article) is generally something that few people can identify with outside of the particular fandom in question. Generally, if the documentary well planned, it will demonstrate that these fans are not as crazy as we think, and that the viewers will learn something about themselves through the people in the film. This one accomplishes that, as well as providing a history about a rather limited topic – Showbiz Pizza and the animatronic band The Rock-afire Explosion.
It is hard to describe a place like this, because they have not really been prominent in American culture for about 20 years. Chuck E. Cheese still floats around in the landscapes of suburbia, but not at all to the same degree as the 1980s. It was a pizza place – because all kids love pizza. It was an arcade – because all kids love video games. There were prizes – because all kids love prizes. It basically hits all the notes of happiness for children. Showbiz Pizza’s slogan used to be “Where a kid can be a kid,” but these sorts of cultural spaces of childhood have been replaced by other elements of consumption and entertainment. Arcades proved to be too costly of an investment for most places, and few have survived over the years – those that did have specialized in some way in order to stand out. Since Showbiz was an arcade attached to a restaurant, they lost money even faster, as they had to compete against pizza chains that provided better pizza delivered to the home for less and arcades with better and usually more up to date games. The fact that they decided to combine these two hot buttons of 80s culture into one place forced them to cut corners on both aspects of the business, thriving in neither of the things they focused in. However, they were unique in one aspect – The Rock-afire Explosion.
This documentary is about many things – primarily it focuses on describing the legacy of Rock-afire, both by a comprehensive look at the creation/creator of the band and how fans have help to keep this band alive for decades. Each perspective is uniquely interesting and in depth. Inventor Aaron Fechter created this band for Showbiz, and shows the behind the scenes of the history of the business and manufacturing – this is particularly haunting as we witness the promise of success and the failure of Showbiz personified in the decay of his workshop. As advanced as he was with engineering and development, fans have matched him on their own (well, almost). Dedicated individuals have scraped up money for years in order to buy up their own animatronic bands (which cannot be cheap). They have set up shows in their houses, or as the film shows, created sheds larger than their modest homes to hold a space for the band to play. New owners of these animatronic bands have dedicated their lives to Rock-afire – saving money, sacrificing various economic or personal improvements to their lives, learning programing and mechanical engineering, and maintaining their own personal band (a particularly rare collectable that needs to be kept in perfect order). In essence, they have taken everything that a million dollar business put in to a franchise into a glorified collectable.
There is an underlying theme of economics throughout this documentary. Animatronics is an expensive pursuit, and while the 80’s seemed like a gilded age of Reagan-promised optimism, that was not the reality. Arcades exploded in their presence in American culture as video games grew increasingly popular, but arcade cabinets are costly and their audience was relatively specific at the time. Video games were not as omnipresent or accepted as mainstream consumption as they are now. Arcades peaked as kids shifted their consumption from spaces of culture to the home. Personal consoles, handheld systems, and digitization made it possible for every home to be an arcade, therefore eliminating the need for an arcade in every town. Smaller towns may have been more likely to have a Showbiz Pizza, as it offered the excitement of an arcade with the practicality of a family restaurant. The kids (now adults) in this documentary worshiped these locations (and more importantly, the iconic band that lived in an otherwise generic pizza restaurant), and these spaces of culture and the band in it never left them.
While there is a focus on corporate economics, there is also a more subtle, but apparent focus on the economics of the people in the documentary. The fans are so earnest and enthusiastic, and the documentary does a good job of showing them as human beings instead of objects of ridicule. However, there is a reality of social class that may help to explain this rather specific fandom. Some of the people in the documentary have been in a life-long lower economic status, and have lived in a single particular place their entire lives. Therefore, their only way to engage culture, or to escape the overbearing economic pressures of their lives, was to go to these places of cultural consumption. It was their only break away from their lives, and their only means of cultural exploration, regardless of how limited this exploration is. It is not shocking that they developed a strong affinity towards it, as Showbiz very much represented the possibilities of the world outside of their means – the world of culture, music, entertainment, fame, and the technology of the future. I do not think it is too off to say that the obsession with the band may be rooted in this – the joy of going to this special place in contrast with the limitations and struggles of their daily lives must have been explosive. The life-long dedication to something that made someone so uniquely happy is not at all strange. Therefore, in a sense, this documentary is about finding absolute joy in culturally limiting environments and situations, and doing whatever you can in life to keep that joy in your life. It is also about finding out you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that your love is not that weird after all.
I am absolutely blown away by this documentary. While it seems overly limited, it does not fail to be engaging. It is relatively cheaply made, but deeply personal. It demonstrates how individuals hold on to one of the few things in life that made them happy while forced to participate in a system of corrupt economics that forces them to remain in your place at the bottom. The film’s focus on how people continue to participate with and share the things they love in life, to the point of personal dedication to a sort of shitty pizza chain’s fake puppet band, is actually really inspiring. I really like the suggestion of moving away from cultural spaces to personal consumer culture in the home visa vi the absurdity of 80s economics – where we thought we could just do whatever we wanted and people would make it profitable. However, the end of these pizza chains, along with the end of arcades symbolized how production forced people to consume privately – a shift of social participation to personal consumption, a shift we are seeing reversed through current internet as fans are re-uniting with what they love and creating communities around it.
I love that the filmmakers never show these people as being weird or obsessive – they are simply fans of something a little different. The main problem with the documentary is that it lacks a bit of outside context. A lot of historical and cultural background could have helped make this film much larger piece of cultural analysis, and would not have been difficult to fit in, as it is relatively short as it stands. It hints at various things, but would benefit from larger discussion. Though, it would not be difficult to elaborate on these things for a class with a lecture or discussion after viewing. While showing this in a class would be great for a discussion of fandom, the economic and cultural context of the 1980s would be helpful for demonstrating why this fandom is not as strange as how some people will interpret it. Regardless, it is an interesting film and well worth watching.
You can find it on Netflix Instant Stream or by going to http://www.rockafiremovie.com/