Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
It's three-quarters great. Now where's the rock opera?
ALERT! BIG-TIME SPOILERS AHEAD!
I loved about 75 percent of Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny – and that fucking rocks.
Though I’m not a rabid fan of Jack Black’s band/pet project/excuse to do sketch comedy, I am a fan enough to have listened to most of their songs and watched their DVD – and that’s where my surprise at the 75 percent comes in. I have the same relationship to the Tenacious D schtick as I do with all of Monty Python; that is, I love about half of their stuff, while the rest baffles or outright irritates me.
Memo to everyone: the “spam” skit in Monty Python is not funny.
Anyway, so when I got to check out an advance screening of the Tenacious D movie, subtitled The Pick of Destiny, I was expecting the same ratio. Instead, Black and his loyal partner, Kyle Gass, packed all the unfunny shit into the first quarter of the movie – a near-disastrous “origin” story – and pretty much kicked ass for the rest.
Now, I concede that the Tenacious D formula might not be for everyone, but given Black’s wide appeal and bizarre crossover into great children’s fare – School of Rock and his pre-movie ads for environmental awareness – it would seem that Tenacious D has legions of fans waiting to discover the band who just haven’t hit puberty yet.
But all those young School of Rock fans will be delighted when they discover Tenacious D’s music and this corker of a movie.
First, let me say that I’m relieved to see Black back in familiar territory after his dreary performance in King Kong. Our own Red Baron wrote a stellar review of Jackson’s already underrated remake, but I’ll offer this about Black: Damn. He almost had it. When I heard Jackson cast him, I could see the choice working. I could imagine Jackson’s vision of Black channeling a young Orson Welles into his Carl Denham … but it just wasn’t there. Jackson knows how to cast his movies, and after the triumph of Gollum, he’s earned the right to stunt-cast whenever, whomever and whatever he wants – but he should have played it safer with Denham, going with a more straight-up Welles clone like Liev Schreiber or Vincent D’onofrio.
So it was great to see Black throwing around his fat belly and hot head in the series of low-rent L.A. locations we've come to expect from Tenacious D. Incidentally, Black and Gass are two amazingly fat guys. I think Gass has even put on weight since their DVD, and they couldn’t give less of a fuck – and that’s when the Tenacious D formula works best: When they take “not giving a fuck” very seriously. I mentioned earlier that there’s about a quarter-of-a-movie’s worth of suck here. Well, it all comes near the beginning, in a spoof of Kung Fu, where we see Black and Gass meet, with Gass as the untouchable master of rock and Black as the green apprentice. Granted, I don’t see the wisdom in inverting the fundamental power structure of a comedic duo – why make Black the straight man? – but it fails more so because they lose focus of what makes Tenacious D work:
An undying, unyielding, utterly innocent and totally reverent love of music, especially (obviously) rock and roll.
Tenacious D (and this movie) works best when they focus on the rock. It works best in the scenes where Black and Gass boast and chatter about the faces they’re going to melt and the lives their going to change with their music. I have a running joke about my rock band friends – it’s already becoming one of those dumb, unfunny bits I say all the time – but I’ll offer it again: Whenever I call up a rocker friend of mine, I joke that only through sheer luck did I manage to call them during a time when they weren’t rocking. That’s what Tenacious D is all about!
Case in point: The movie’s first sure-footed laugh comes when Black finds out that Gass is just a fat loser and not a Zen master of rock. Gass is about to pack up and leave because he “can’t pay his rent.”
And Black says, “Stop. We’ll pay the rent – with rock.”
Then, finally, they get the boys into that same club they always play, and their perpetually unimpressed open mike host (Paul F. Tompkins, delightfully dry), introduces them by reading a note they wrote: “They came here to rock, and they’re going to come here again … into your ear-pussies.”
Again, when Tenacious D concentrates on the transcendental power of rock, the formula kicks ass, and by the time they get into the serviceable story for the movie – a quest that mixes equal parts Tolkein, Hammett and the liner notes for Angel of Retribution – their mythic love of rock takes over, just as it should.
Incidentally, I love how Tenacious D's central conceit is that they're a lousy rock band that writes ridiculous songs, while the actual band actually, literally rocks. The songs on their self-titled first album are goofy, yes, and there are lots of goofy interstitials like “cock push-ups” and the friendship test thing, but there’s not a bad track on it.
Which reminds me: The movie’s first act sucks, but its opening rocks! Pick of Destiny opens with a flashback to Black’s childhood where he rocks under the stern gaze of his ultra-religious father, played by – no bullshit – Meat Loaf. And let me say that there’s a cosmic rightness in seeing a graying-at-the-temples Meat Loaf belt out an oppressive, abusive ballad.
In fact, Meat Loaf’s appearance brings me to my second beef with the movie: It should have been a rock opera.
Well, check that – could have been. Really, I was kind of disappointed that there weren’t more (and better) new Tenacious D tracks in the movie, and it’s because of this fantastic opening! Seeing Meat Loaf in action evoked memories of all the best parts of Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and then they stumbled into the lame training sequence, only to recover half an hour later.
Whatever. The opening sequence shows us that Black and Gass have a great rock opera in them, and they stray close to the structure of some other classic movie musicals – Tommy and The Blues Brothers, for example – though I wouldn’t call Pick of Destiny a musical. Structurally, it’s more of a series sketches tied together with songs; more of a variety show.
Meat Loaf is also the first in a series of great cameos, including:
Ben Stiller is pitch-perfect as one of those wasteoids at Guitar Center who speaks in a perpetual grunt and maintains his Alice Cooper ‘do in the face of male pattern baldness. Stiller also delivers key exposition – the titular magical pick is actually a chip from one of Satan’s fangs – and in doing this, Stiller plays the Gandalf role as the wise old one who gives the heroes their quest. Invoking no less than The Lord of the Rings feels righteous for Tenacious D because, again, rock music is all about the wonderful, joyous and spooky power it bestows on its adherents. Rock music, since its inception, has been synonymous with rebellion and, for some reason, devil worship in the freaky, blood-drinking, scare your hyper-religious mother sense. It’s silly to the nth degree, of course, and the D boys have made goofing on this premise one of their trademarks – and it’s charming. Anyone who would get offended at the sight of a 10-foot Satan with cloven feet, horns and all at this movie’s end really needs to lighten the fuck up. Anyone who can’t see the manic humor in watching Black draw a pentagram on his floor with ketchup in an effort to summon a killer lick out of Gass could probably use their ass to fuse carbon into diamonds.
Tim Robbins as the movie’s villain (I guess), a one-legged codger who comes from the same nebulous eastern European country as Charles Bronson’s character in The Great Escape. Robbins’ performance as the conniving old coot calls to mind John Lithgow’s immortal turn in Buckaroo Banzai. Well done.
Whatever the case, the Tenacious D formula rocks, and it’s great to see Black on his old stomping grounds. Yeah, there’s about half an hour of crap in this one, but the rest rocks.
Now let’s have the rock opera.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.