Before Tenacious D plays its first gig, at a quiet bar with an audience of about 15, they have the milquetoast of an emcee (Paul F. Tompkins) read a statement about how the world has been waiting for a band that rocks this hard: “That band has come, and it will come again, right into your ear pussies!” Is it possible to recoil in horror and double over with laughter at the same time? I’m pretty sure that’s what I did.
Movie fans have glimpsed the weirder edges of Jack Black’s musical personality, in The School of Rock and Nacho Libre. Some of them may not know Tenacious D, the real-life rock duo he formed along with Kyle Gass in 1994 before he became a movie star. It was a one-joke band, but what a joke! The D appropriated the Goth trappings and satanist cosmology of pre-1990 rock and proclaimed themselves history’s greatest rock band and the heir to the legends of hair metal, despite the fact that Gass had no hair. The hell of it was, these two chubby guys who looked much more like comics than guitar gods had such great musical chops that the claim seemed credible rather than pathetic.
After some years in the planning stages, the Tenacious D movie is finally here, and the highest praise I can offer is that it is exactly what you would expect it to be. Black and Gass play characters named after themselves, though they go by “JB” and “Kage.” After some preliminary sequences showing how they met, the movie takes up their quest for The Pick of Destiny, a mythical guitar pick made out of Satan’s tooth that gives its wielder wizardly abilities on the guitar.
The music here will sound better to newcomers than it will to The D’s longtime followers. Many of the songs here are designed as accompaniments to the action on the screen rather than stand-alone items. Still, that doesn’t diminish the raucous five-minute opening number, “Kickapoo,” which features cameos by Ronnie James Dio as himself and Meat Loaf as JB’s rock-hating, belt-wielding dad. Almost as good is the climactic number, “Beelzeboss,” depicting The D’s musical showdown with Satan (Dave Grohl).
For all its musical gifts, the movie would collapse if it weren’t for musician-turned-movie director Liam Lynch, whose previous credits include Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. His craptastic direction perfectly complements The D’s antics; the movie’s general visual flatness plays like the result of artistic choice rather than ineptitude, and it gives way to some splendid-looking and sidesplitting set pieces such as JB’s animated hallucination after eating some wild ’shrooms. Like the band, Lynch comes across as a wannabe so that when he springs his skills on you, he catches you by surprise. That quality helps make Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny into this generation’s Wayne’s World. Somewhere in a basement in Aurora, Illinois, Wayne and Garth are on their knees shouting, “We’re not worthy!”