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Courtesy of the rock-afire explosion
An animatronic gorilla is just a fraction of the fun found in The Rock-afire Explosion.
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The Rock-afire Explosion

Directed by Brett Whitcomb

Written by Bradford Thomason

No Rating

Showing this weekend at Kendall Theater

Do you remember the Rock-afire Explosion? Think back to Showbiz Pizza Club or Chuck-E-Cheese. They’re the animatronic band behind the curtain in the big room where you ate crappy pizza. You sat spellbound, soaking up the noise and music, all the while trying to scheme up ways to extract more tokens from mom and dad. On stage, the really scary life-sized gorilla played the keys and the one-toothed bear sang kid songs.

I remember birthday parties for some neighborhood kid. We’d sit, eat, and watch the band. I liked how they danced. The canine drummer flapped his ears to the beat. I remember the lights. I remember sipping flat soda.

But then I grew up.

That was the last I saw of the Rock-afire Explosion. I grew up and forgot about the animatronic band at the pizza place, that is until last summer, when a friend pulled up a video on YouTube. There they were: the gorilla, the bear, the wolf, and the drumming dog. Only instead of playing some kids tune, the band had been choreographed to Usher’s “In The Club.”

The performance was mesmerizing. It was also incredibly disconcerting and subversive. It felt as if Usher and a bunch of robotic animals were perverting my childhood. But I couldn’t stop watching. It was like being a kid again, sitting in Showbiz Pizza Club.

The YouTube clip ended and another story began.

This is the story of a 20-something engineer named Aaron Fetcher and his meteoric rise to the top of the animatronic music entertainment world (let that one sink in). This is also about 31-year-old Chris Thrash, a regular guy from rural Alabama who chased his childhood dreams (and just happened to like the Rock-afire Explosion a lot more than everyone ever). It’s a story about bringing the band back together, and it’s captured in the new documentary The Rock-afire Explosion, premiering this weekend at the Boston Underground Film Festival.

The movie begins in the early 2000s. The Rock-afire Explosion has largely been forgotten. Aaron Fetcher, creator of the band, wistful of his legacy, has moved on with his life.

Only this is the 2000s, and on the Internet you find people of all walks. Some of these people never forgot about the Rock-afire Explosion. They made a website and formed a small intense online fan community built around their mutual love of rocking robots in animal suits.

One of these fans, Chris Thrash, loved the band so much that he contacted Aaron Fetcher about getting himself in the Rock-afire Explosion. After one life savings blown and a few hundred hours programming and debugging, music videos of current hits performed by the Rock-afire Explosion began appearing on YouTube.

The videos were a hit, some of them generating millions of views. All of a sudden, the Rock-afire Explosion had been brought back from the cobwebs of a million childhood memories.

The Rock-afire Explosion captures this rebirth from the perspective of Thrash and the other die-hard fans, but it also weaves in another story — the rise and fall of Aaron Fetcher, who in the early 80s at the age of 27 owned a multimillion dollar company with hundreds of employees that produced the Rock-afire Explosion. The film retraces the company’s path from boom to bust and finds Fetcher twenty years later in sole possession of the Rock-afire legacy. The company warehouse is abandoned, a mausoleum of the 1980s gathering dust. Old Rock-afire robots melt and whither.

It is from these ashes, this perfect foil for childhood exuberance, that the film takes its greatest strength. It’s a moving story of a second chance for a once loved, but long forgotten band and their creator. It’s a story about a group of fans trying their hardest not to grow up. The Rock-afire Explosion is an exultant and celebratory documentary of people finding happiness in strange places. It’s the story of bringing the band back together for one more show.

The Rock-afire Explosion will be showing this weekend at the Kendall Theater as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival. More information can be found at
www.rockafiremovie.com.