Laughing with them, not at them

Look beyond the requisite silliness of the characters in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, and you’ll find an endearing humanity. While the chief aim of any Guest project is to play up genre archetypes in over-the-top fashion, what makes the thing work is a heartfelt appreciation for the people he’s spoofing.

Consider the eclectic cast of competitors in “Best in Show,” who despite their obsessive, even neurotic tendencies display a love of dogs and a passion for showing them that’s completely believable. Same with the community theater buffs of “Waiting for Guffman” whose enthusiasm for the stage more than makes up for their lack of acting chops. And while the brash facade of the aging but no-less testosterone-fueled rockers of “This is Spinal Tap” provides the laughs, the sweet, lifelong friendship between the band’s two leaders gives the film an empathetic balance. As the saying goes, we laugh with them, not at them.

“Spinal Tap” in particular hits surprisingly close to reality. Anyone who follows rock music, and particularly heavy metal, can easily recognize the paradigm captured on screen. This occurred to me last week as the annual onslaught that brings washed up has-been bands to the summer festival/county fair circuit got into full swing with Night Ranger coming to Celebrate De Pere.

Ah yes, Night Ranger. First and foremost rockers, but not afraid to show their soft side, Night Ranger was a band built for 1980s middle America. A string of hits including “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “When You Close Your Eyes” and the monster ballad “Sister Christian” ensured the band’s place in the second tier of classic rock alongside the likes of Styx and REO Speedwagon. And for those of us who considered ourselves “serious” music fans, they were eminently mockable. Nickelback-level mockable. Like most of their contemporaries, Night Ranger featured cheesy videos and cheesy album covers that make it hard to believe they don’t chuckle a little themselves these days. Here’s a taste:

So here was Night Ranger hitting the road, and as I had no pressing plans that night, I considered my options: 1) deliberately stay at home and maintain a respectable level of cool, or 2) head down to De Pere, plunk down $10 and stoically wince through the set list while maintaining a smirking sense of distant superiority. I left it to a coin-toss game-day decision, but as the concert got closer, a third option emerged: It might be fun. “When You Close Your Eyes” actually isn’t a terrible song, and, amid the healthy roster of cover bands that blanket our market, how cool would it be to hear “Sister Christian” performed by the band that recorded it? Add to that the people-watching potential at any festival, and I was in.

But it was not to be. Celebrate De Pere, held every Memorial Day weekend, when the weather in Northeastern Wisconsin tends to be the most volatile, has a long history of storm-related postponements and cancellations. As I hopped in the car around 8 o’clock I couldn’t help notice dark skies to the southwest. Really dark. By the time I got to De Pere, it was nighttime black, getting windy, and rain was imminent. The only question was how bad it would be. The gate person letting me in for free wasn’t a good sign, but I waited it out under a beer tent as it began to sprinkle. There was grumbling around the tent that the police had halted beer sales — also not a good sign. I snickered at the thought of people coming to grips with the prospect of seeing Night Ranger sober. Finally, I got word from two passersby coming from the stage area — the show was off. And for a brief moment, I was disappointed.

I’m sure it would be fairly easy, properly motivated, to find a way to see Night Ranger some day, but I doubt the stars will align in such a fashion, as they did last week, that I couldn’t say no. There’s a certain unforced charm to a scenario that enables me to shrug my shoulders, turn off my cynic alarm and go with the flow. And like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, I usually don’t realize it until it’s over.


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