Though there has never been a movie quite like this, my guess is you'll feel as if you've seen it before. Naturally, that assumes you've seen High Fidelity, Orange County, Saving Silverman or, of course, School of Rock.
Perhaps more than any other actor of his generation, Jack Black has built a career out of simply being himself. His characters may have different names in each new production but he is almost always playing Jack Black. The performance that epitomized this - at least up until now - was the one he gave in Richard Linklater's improbable masterpiece about a portly rock-obsessed musician who teams up with a group of kids to win a musical competition. In his new film, the actor plays a portly, rock-obsessed musician who teams up with an even portlier rock-obsessed musician to win a musical competition. At this stage of his career, Black isn't waiting around for other people to write movies that showcase his patented stoner-dervish persona. He's writing them himself.
Co-writing them, anyway. He wrote Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny with costar Kyle Gass and director Liam Lynch. It expands upon a series of short films the duo made for HBO beginning in 1999. In their fleshed-out, feature-length Tenacious D debut, Black and Gass bring those who don't subscribe to the cable service up to speed on the amazing journey that led them to become "the greatest band in history."
The movie opens with an amusing enough gag. A stocky, preteen Black runs away from home to become a famous rocker. He's been advised to make his way to Hollywood but, being the pre-stoner dunce he is, he zigzags across the country stopping at so many other Hollywoods (Hollywood, Florida; Hollywood, Maryland, etc.) that, by the time he actually arrives in Hollywood, California, he's aged into the Black we know today.
The filmmakers waste no time bringing the band mates together. Minutes after hitting town, Black sees Gass playing guitar for spare change on a sunny boardwalk. Dazzled by the performer's chops, he tries to strike up a partnership on the spot. At first the older musician rebuffs him. But when Gass happens across Black being savagely thrashed by four men with fake British accents and white jumpsuits straight out of A Clockwork Orange, he has a change of heart and consents to take Black under his wing.
From that point on the picture takes whimsical detours here and there, but it principally focuses on the pair's quest for rock godhood. As Black laid out in one of the songs his character wrote in School of Rock, step one is paying the rent. It's hard to write a masterpiece, sell a million records, and attract a gaggle of groupies if you're living in a cardboard box. The two hear about an open-mike contest at a local bar and devote themselves to winning it.
Step two is learning to write and perform like the greats. Rather than practice, the two do lots of bongs and ponder the challenge. Eventually, in another scene reminiscent of School of Rock, they're flipping through copies of Rolling Stone when they notice something significant about their covers: All the guitar legends - Townsend, Page, AC/DC's Angus Young - are shown holding the same oddly shaped pick.
A trip to a nearby music store results in the discovery that such a pick is not for sale. Ben Stiller turns in a cameo as a burned-out clerk who shares a bit of hush-hush head-banger lore. According to his character, the same pick has been used by every guitar deity, from Robert Johnson to those of the present time. More significantly, it is a one-of-a-kind object formed from a tooth of Satan himself, and it's under lock and key at the Rock and Roll History Museum.
With that, Black and Gass have their mission. Fulfilling their destiny requires that they borrow a car from their one fan, drive at top speed to the museum, break in, and make off with the magical dental material.
Will you be glad you went along for the ride? If you're a hardcore D fan (and apparently there are a fair number of them), you'll have a merry enough time. The vast majority of viewers, however, will probably be less impressed, because the picture revisits a lot of familiar Jack Black ground.
For every Clockwork Orange reference or inspired Sasquatch fantasia, the film falls back on dozens of recycled riffs. Black, at his most chatterboxy manic, makes with the jokes about shredding guitar solos and perfecting stage clichés such as the power slide. His songs sound like outtakes from the School of Rock soundtrack. It got to the point where I figured any minute he'd start on a rant about sticking it to the man.
Sure, this time he does all these things with a partner. And Gass does possess an understated comic touch that grows on you. In the end, though, the Tenacious D experience is basically Jack Black in stereo. Both characters embody essentially the same schtick: the contradiction of middle-aged pothead jelly belly and delusions of heavy-metal grandeur. I've been laughing at this concept for some years now, but I've got to be honest. At this point, Black and Gass aren't the only ones getting a little old. The joke is, too.