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An adoring, profanity-laced love note to the fans who helped push Jack Black up the stairway to fame, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny is a lively enough farce, a melding of Cheech and Chong stoner-comic sensibilities with Spinal Tap-pish musical parodies.
The comedy, which stars Black as JB and Kyle Gass as his musical partner, Kage, begins as a fun and frivolous look at the origins of the ”mock” rock band — they’re losers harboring delusions of legendry — but rapidly sets the pair out on a quest to find a special green guitar pick: the Pick of Destiny. The pick is a chip of Satan’s tooth (because, as we all know, rock and roll is the Devil’s music), and it allows whoever possesses it to play like a guitar god. It’s been used by everyone from Pete Townshend to Eddie Van Halen, but now resides inconspicuously in the Rock and Roll History Museum, in the Guitarway to Heaven exhibit. JB and Kage set off to claim the pick, win open- mike night at a local dive, and use the prize money to pay the month’s rent. That’s about as high as their ambitions go.
Black and Gass formed Tenacious D in the late ’90s as a goof. Both are accomplished musicians, and both have a obvious knowledge of — and affection for — old-style rock and roll, the kind that comes with pretentious grandness, affected medieval undertones, and glittery eye shadow especially for men.
A six-episode Tenacious D show was broadcast on HBO from 1999 to 2000. But then Black hit it big with breakout roles in High Fidelity and Orange County. He hit it even bigger a few years later with School of Rock and a plum role in King Kong.
To put Tenacious D back on a front burner and crank the heat up feels like, at this point in Black’s career, a creative indulgence. It’s a means for the actor to have some fun between big-ticket projects, while providing pal Gass a chance at big-screen cred.
The movie’s gags are threadbare — the joke is one-note sustained for 90 minutes — but Black and Gass carry everything with such good-natured, externalized joy that you can’t help but be caught up in the movie’s whirlpool of glee. With their gags about marijuana and magic mushrooms, Tenacious D are a Cheech and Chong for a modern-day generation. But the real beauty of their work lies in the careful, virtually perfect construction of the music, which frequently drifts in the direction of rock opera. The lyrics are drenched in four-letter profanities, but a smattering of cleverness still seeps through. And the melodies are rich and nuanced. The music may be lampooning the guitar-god format, but it’s doing so with the gentlest of winks, a sense of tribute and enormous respect. It’s entirely plausible to imagine Black Sabbath or Jethro Tull launching into these songs with dead seriousness.
Area Showtimes TENACIOUS IN THE PICK OF DESTINY
Starring Jack Black, Kyle Gass
There are amusing nods to A Clockwork Orange and Sasquatch (an uncredited John C. Reilly), as well as an uproarious encounter with a handful of psychedelic mushrooms. Black and Gass are joined by an old UCLA classmate, Tim Robbins, who provides one of the movie’s best bits. Ben Stiller does a funny turn as a paranoid, shaggy-haired guitar-store clerk. But the most inspired moments are musical, one provided by Meat Loaf, in a too-brief cameo as JB’s ultra-Christian father, and the other provided by Dave Grohl as Satan, who rises from Hell to challenge the duo to ear-blasting rock off.
What Black and Gass appear to be aiming at is the age disparity found in the world of rock. The musical genre is clearly a young man’s game, yet the field is bursting at its Lycra seams with middle-aged men still preening and prancing and screeching at the top of their lungs. They’re the pot-bellied Peter Pans of our day. So if Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny proves one thing, it’s this: Rock and roll never dies. It just gains weight.