In another world, Tenacious D might never have evolved into anything more than a stoned lark, or a goofball routine Jack Black and Kyle Gass performed at parties, to the mild amusement of overly indulgent friends. In this world, however, Jack Black became a huge movie star, and Tenacious D rode the wave of his massive popularity to astonishing heights.
Tenacious D is the joke band that could. Its two members became the unlikeliest of rock stars: a bald, portly middle-aged man whose career stalled at bit parts in forgettable films, and a pudgy, excitable Jewish stoner with wildly expressive eyebrows. They’ve since enjoyed all the perks of pop stardom. They opened for Foo Fighters and Beck. Dave Grohl played drums on their big-budget, Dust Brothers-produced, major-label album. Spike Jonze and John Kricfalusi directed videos for them (for “Wonderboy” and “Fuck Her Gently,” respectively). They went platinum in the United States and gold in Great Britain and Australia.
They even enjoyed perks unimaginable even to most successful rock groups, like a short-lived HBO television show and their very own feature film, Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny. An act that threatened to wear out its welcome proved to have surprising staying power. Clearly, the boys’ Faustian bargain with the antichrist had paid off.
Tenacious D offered an ironic take on a pre-ironic era of rock mythology, a bygone time when men with long, impeccably feathered hair and tight trousers could sing in falsetto about dragons, wizards, the devil, and lands of ice and snow without fear of being ridiculed. Or did they? Tenacious D fused sincerity and irony to such a degree that they became impossible to separate. The band’s shtick was undeniably tongue-in-cheek, but its love of rock history was undeniable. When Tenacious D jokingly chastised Ronnie James Dio for being too old to rock, it came off more as loving than mocking.
There’s something wonderfully democratic about Tenacious D’s success. If someone who looks like Kyle Gass can rock out in arenas before thousands of adoring fans, then seemingly anyone can. The D came not to bury Neanderthal rock, but to praise it. There’s nothing mean-spirited or cynical about the band’s music. Even when Jack Black plays assholes, as in High Fidelity, his comedy is defined by joy and an almost unseemly delight in the transformative powers of rock ’n’ roll. The ebullience of his persona and his manic mugging is enormously infectious.
By 2006, Tenacious D was established as an unlikely rock powerhouse. But were its members ready for their own big-screen vehicle? Were we, as a country, ready for a $20 million movie starring Kyle Gass? In a 2003 profile in The New York Times magazine, Jack Black doesn’t seem at all convinced of the film’s viability. After joking about making the Citizen Kane of rock movies and the best film of all time, Black says he’s been shopping a script to studios (including the film’s eventual home, New Line). Then he concedes, “The weird thing is, nobody that’s read it likes it so far.” Later in the same article, Black reasons, “Look, the truth is, the Tenacious D script is probably garbage. But at least it’s my garbage. I’d rather do my garbage than your garbage.”
Mr. Show veterans B.J. Porter and Scott Aukerman (later of the stellar podcast/comedy series Comedy Death Ray) wrote a rejected Tenacious D screenplay that made Black and Gass realize that if they wanted a script they could stand behind, they’d have to write it themselves. It was a tall order. Even the duo’s 10-minute short films for HBO felt padded. How would the pair’s peculiar aesthetic fare when stretched to 90 minutes or more? In 2006, Black and Gass finally sprung a Tenacious D movie on the world. The response was less than ecstatic.
Critics, shockingly, found much to criticize in a film that begins with cartoon representations of its stars flying around on clouds of their own voluminous flatulence, followed by the first of many pot jokes. Audiences weren’t any more receptive. In its opening weekend, Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny grossed a mere $3 million. In a characteristically self-deprecating appearance on The Daily Show, Black joked that since they’d played a clip from Destiny during all their other television appearances and the film still tanked, they had sworn off showing clips, on the grounds that the less people saw of the film, the more likely they were to go watch it.
So I watched Destiny the first time with exceedingly low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised. I found it sweet, funny, and winning. Like Tenacious D’s best work, it embodied something primal and pure about the spirit of rock ’n’ roll. So I went into this Case File expecting to write a stirring defense of it. Alas, re-watching the film, I soon realized that I’d made the following fatal mistakes:
- I expected a Tenacious D movie to hold up to repeat viewing.
- I was stone-cold sober, with nothing more mind-bending coursing through my system than Wellbutrin and caffeine.
Some movies should never be seen sober. Pick Of Destiny is one of them. It almost seems heretical to see a movie without the aid of marijuana or alcohol when it was clearly conceived and written by the super-baked. Stoner movies and sobriety are a terrible combination. My memory is a little hazy, but I’m pretty certain I was not, in fact, sober during my first viewing.
In its first five minutes, at least, Destiny radiates all the promise in the world. In a glorious nod to outsized rock operas and two of the band’s biggest influences, it opens with Black singing about how he was seduced by devil music. Black, it seems, was raised in a devout household by glowering patriarch Meat Loaf. Then one day his poster of Ronnie James Dio came alive and commanded a pre-pubescent J.B. to travel to Hollywood and fulfill his destiny by becoming a rock god. Black visits every Hollywood in the country before finally stumbling upon the one in Southern California.
It seems fitting that Destiny opens with Black’s young doppelgänger, since the film radiates an unambiguous, uncomplicatedly child-like love for rock ’n’ roll. The fundamental innocence of the whole venture—and Black’s persona in general—makes it easy to forgive the film’s self-indulgence. If only that were enough.
Unfortunately, Destiny’s knockout rock-opera opening ensures that the film peaks in its first five minutes. It also means that Destiny crams more plot, action, and excitement into its first five minutes than in the remaining 89.
In Hollywood, Black discovers Gass playing guitar for spare change on the beach and is instantly enraptured. Gass enrolls his eager protégé in a sort of informal rock school, a school of rock, if you will. Of course, since The D is The D, the lessons linger on the flashiest, most superficial aspects of rock stardom: perfecting the ultimate “power slide,” standing strong in the face of hecklers, cock pushups (because, Gass cryptically insists, you “never know when you’ll have to fuck your way out of a tight situation”), and of course, Black buying dime bags for Gass.
Pick Of Destiny devotes its first act to the origin story of Tenacious D, then sends the boys on an epic quest to retrieve the Holy Grail of aspiring rockers everywhere: the titular pick of destiny. It’s a magical talisman derived from Satan’s tooth, with the power to transform everyday Joes into legendary musical virtuosos. It’s a pick that has been passed down from generation to generation, from a humble lute player who uses it to win the woman of his dreams to Robert Johnson to The Who, then finally to Eddie Van Halen. Eventually, it winds up in a carefully guarded rock ’n’ roll museum.
Tenacious D derives much of its comedy from the incongruous juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic. So Gass and Black plan to use this most holy of supranatural (that’s a whole level beyond supernatural, we are informed) tokens to win an open-mic night hosted by Paul F. Tompkins, who steals the film with his dry delivery of lines like this one about “ear pussies.”
In its bid to stretch a rail-thin conceit to feature length, Pick Of Destiny throws just about everything at audiences: flashbacks, snatches of rock opera, fantasy sequences, a psilocybin-induced hallucination (wherein Black learns that he’s the son of Sasquatch as he flies through the air and swims through the strawberry river), a chase, a heist, superstar cameos from Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller (who also executive-produced) and climactically, a rock-off between Tenacious D and Satan, played by an unrecognizable Dave Grohl. In this clip, Destiny even throws in a heartwarming message, as Tompkins explains that Satan’s essence is found not so much in a black magical guitar pick as in the ugliness of the human soul.
During my first viewing of Pick Of Destiny, I found this more-is-more, kitchen-sink approach charming and inventive. It felt like the film had a surplus of ideas and gags it couldn’t entirely fit into a cohesive narrative. During my second, tragically sober viewing, it struck me as a semi-desperate attempt to pad 30 minutes’ worth of film and a smattering of truly funny lines and gags into 94 exceedingly loose minutes. Inspired and puerile, intermittently funny and a little desperate, Pick Of Destiny is probably the best possible film that could have been made about Tenacious D, but it still doesn’t feel like a real movie, as evidenced by this deleted scene. Astonishingly, there were scenes too ridiculous and self-indulgent even for Pick of Destiny.
Black and Gass seized upon the transcendentally silly notion of a chubby acoustic-guitar duo that labors under the delusion that they’re heavy-metal rock gods, and they took this idea further than anyone imagined possible. They spun it into a TV show, a hit album, opening gigs for their famous friends/collaborators, benefit concerts for John Kerry and Barack Obama, cameo appearances in Beck and Foo Fighters videos, and a multi-platinum compilation DVD (The Complete Masterworks). But in taking their adventures to the big screen, they finally encountered the limits of their oft-delightful but ultimately limited shtick.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success (high), Fiasco (sober)