June 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)

by Nick Schager

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the hair metal-loving '80s-era musical Rock of Ages.]

"When The Pick of Destiny was released, it was a bomb / And all the critics said that The D was done," croons Jack Black at the outset of his and partner Kyle Gass' new Tenacious D album Rize of the Fenix—a jokey admission of failure that's at once accurate (the film tanked at the box office) and yet sells the D's sole cinematic offering more than a bit short. Hitting theaters in 2006 thanks largely to Black's emergence as a big-screen star, Liam Lynch's musical odyssey neither fully satisfied the faithful nor roped in new loyalists, in part due to a script (by Black, Gass and Lynch) that was light on memorable one-liners and an original soundtrack that wasn't as consistently catchy as the group's superior self-titled 2001 debut album. In hindsight, however, the fate of this adaptation of Black and Gass' short-lived HBO comedy series—which amounted to three vignette-filled episodes of blistering acoustic-rock bravado and wacko-stoner surrealism—was undeserved. Rocking much harder than it has any right to, as well as both embracing and goofily screwing around with the clichés of rock-'n-roll, musicals, coming-of-age stories, road-trip adventures, and mythic journeys, the film grooves with a larger-than-life grinning-idiot verve that's indicative of both Tenacious D's tunes and the '70s and '80s arena metal to which it pays tribute.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

A cartoon marijuana-and-farting lampoon of THX title cards marks the inauspicious start to Pick of Destiny. That minor stumble, mercifully, is quickly offset by its intro "Kickapoo" number, in which a young "JB" (Troy Gentile, expertly replicating Black's devil-eyes and facial snarl) rebels against his religious father (Meat Loaf, given a trademark rock-opera verse) and then prays to Ronnie James Dio, who croons back to Black a prophesy about heading to Los Angeles to meet his creative soulmate. Lynch's fleet direction matches the song's rollercoaster stylistic fluctuations, though it settles into a more reserved mode once a now-adult Black arrives in L.A. with dreams of stardom. Black's naively hopeful exit off a bus, the Hollywood sign in the distance, is a nod to the type of small-towner-braves-the-big-city fantasy peddled by Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" music video. And that fondness for rock tropes continues once Black—having met an arrogant, long-haired Gass playing Bach on the boardwalk—becomes Gass' mentee, which entails learning how to execute Pete Townshend-esque power slides, and later leads to a heavy metal-style heroic odyssey when he and Gass discover that the key to all great rock guitarists' success was their use of the titular pick, which was sculpted from Satan's tooth and now sits in the Rock 'n' Roll History Museum.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

The Pick of Destiny adores pentagrams, wizards, sorcery, and bong hits while tethering such loves to an overriding belief in the majesty of friendship and a tasty riff. To that end, Lynch's film is best when it simply affords its two leads space to banter with laid-back idiocy—as when Gass dubs Black's maiden power slide attempt "awesome…ly bad"—or gives them time on stage at a local club's Open Mic Night, where (following the TV show's lead) their blustery performance is prefaced by a self-penned introduction of insane and profane overstatement ("They're here to come again, in your ear pussies," announces Paul F. Tompkins' exasperated event host). Unlike the series, which didn't delineate between fantasy and reality, Lynch's film uneasily strikes a balance between actual and imagined events, so that Beelzebub (a fang-licking Dave Grohl) turns out to be real, but Sasquatch (a doofy John C. Reilly) can only exist in Black's mushroom-addled brain. Still, if that inconsistency somewhat destabilizes the overarching tone, it doesn't interfere with the sheer ridiculousness of those moments, which—as with a museum break-in to steal the Pick, or a car race sequence modeled after a videogame JB and KG play—frequently heighten absurdity through sudden cutaways from madness to tranquil shots of people witnessing (or ignoring) said craziness.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Cameos from Tenacious D fans/supporters Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller (the latter also an executive producer) are pleasant sidepaths amidst Black's boisterous spazziness and his schizophrenic hostile-loving rapport with the deadpan Gass, who's funniest in a quick glance of stunned excitement upon being propositioned by a trio of young sorority girls. A late bit of gay-panic notwithstanding, The Pick of Destiny largely eschews pandering to the frat-stoner crowd by placing its emphasis on madcap-quest hijinks flavored with equal doses of pot, swords-and-sorcery, and actual musicianship—the latter of which remains Tenacious D's trump card. As in Black's slumbering dream of performing "Master Blaster" (a song about causing audience members' heads to explode through metal shrieks), the joke is not only that Black and Gass become increasingly encased in Rob Halford-ish studded leather jackets and eye-shadow, or that Gass plays a dual-fret guitar shaped like a woman's spread legs. It's that such musical parody ultimately comes courtesy of acoustic-duo songs that—regardless of their gonzo lyrics about detonating brains and Cutlass Supremes—also legitimately rock.

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Posted by ahillis at June 15, 2012 8:38 AM