Maybe it's just bad luck that I've seen way too many context-free documentaries lately.* Or maybe there's a disturbing new film trend on the horizon that mistakenly treats documentary audiences the same as blockbuster audiences. Of all the genres, this is not supposed to be a safe haven for "turn off your brain" movies, but The Rock-afire Explosion willfully bucks that idea.
Director Brett Whitcomb and screenwriter Bradford Thomason dive deep into geekdom's murky, outlying oceans to profile fans of the titular animatronic rock band made popular by the Showbiz Pizza chain in the 1980s. The film capitalizes on a minor resurgence of pop cultural interest from a few years ago, when an Alabama enthusiast named Chris Thrash posted YouTube videos of his personal Rock-afire band performing contemporary music. No doubt, some people tuned in out of nostalgia, while others simply wanted to watch a freak show--who in their right mind would spend so much money resurrecting motion-control stuffed animals using dead technology?
I can't decide which camp Whitcomb and Thomason fall into. They take great pains to explain the story of Showbiz Pizza, detailing wacky engineer Aaron Fechter's rise from tinkerer to head of a multi-million-dollar production company, whose job it was to supply the fast-growing franchises with complete stage shows. But the film takes frequent detours to interview Rock-afire's most ardent fans, many of whom come off as distinctly Southern and uniformly pathetic.
Sure, that's harsh. But so is the filmmakers' treatment of their subjects. The Rock-afire Explosion is like a lost Christopher Guest mockumentary, a showcase of bad teeth, worse hair, and obsessions that should have been put in check long ago. Unlike a Guest movie, though, there's no attempt to humanize these characters or provide (here's that word again) context for their unconventional lifestyles. The audience is simply invited to watch the idiot parade and, I guess, measure their own passions against those who let their interests get completely out of control.
Unlike other fan-centric films like The King of Kong or the Trekkies series, The Rock-afire Explosion is a completely insular beast. As such, it feels insincere. Rather than getting the interviewees to open up about why Showbiz and Rock-afire meant so much to them (aside from throwaway Disneyland comparisons), Whitcomb and Thomason appear to just let the camera roll and leave the viewer to make their own decisions. That sounds great, until Thrash asserts that he only drinks Mountain Dew--like, exclusively. If you were to meet someone like that in real life, I imagine you'd want to know more about their situation; instead, the comment is left floating in the air, like a word balloon circling a cartoon character.
I also found it troubling that, aside from Fechter's wife, Kerry--herself a lifelong Rock-afire fan--the filmmakers don't interview anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. We're told that Showbiz Pizza (and, by extension, The Rock-afire Explosion) began in the South, but the movie would have you believe that its appreciation is strictly a regional quirk. Are there fans in Peotone, Illinois or Sydney, Australia? I don't know--because the film's lens is so narrow.
Worst of all, the coda provides a brief "Where are they now" catch-up, in which we learn that Thrash and his wife, Sandy (whom he met and married at the local roller rink--yeah, you can't write this shit), opened their own, local Showbiz franchise--complete with the fully functional Rock-afire kit Chris purchased from Fechter's warehouse. This information breezes right past, and I wanted nothing more than to hear that story.
During the previous seventy minutes, Thrash is presented as a developmentally arrested rube who married an almost literal bump-on-a-log with terrible teeth. That the couple had the wherewithal and ambition to open a business together is a twist of pre-crash-Shyamalan mastery. Again, it's a footnote in the freak show.
Even if Whitcomb and Thomason didn't care to get into their subjects' personal lives, would it have killed them to interview some experts on pop culture and/or psychologists who deal with these kinds of obsessions? Was it too much trouble to chronicle the length and significance of Rock-afire's YouTube phenomenon? The movie left me feeling queasily like that wasn't the point of this exercise; that an interviewer likely sat, straight-backed and empathy-faced, listening to subjects drone on about the ape piano player's molds and gears--while a producer giggled into his ear mic, urging him to make the next question about the durability of collectible cups.
*Yes, two is one too many.