As David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) once contemplated in This is Spinal Tap (1984), “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” Yet just because this line exists doesn’t necessarily mean that cleverness always trumps stupidity, as Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny bears witness.
At its best moments the film is an all-out assault of unashamed stupidity. At its worst, it attempts to rise above its station by making the all-too-obligatory post-modern gestures that direct attention away from the film’s main strength: The D and their antics. For viewers who desire the subtle satire of This is Spinal Tap and Fear of a Black Hat (1994), the self-reflective analysis of music’s role in our daily lives of High Fidelity (2000), or even the child-friendly performance of Jack Black in School of Rock (2005), this film is not for you. But if you have ever bought a black-light to create the right ambiance when you played air-guitar on a backwards tennis racket in your parents’ house, then Tenacious D will not disappoint as it channels your inner-teenager to the big screen.
The film’s strengths mainly emerge from Kyle Gass’ and Jack Black’s public celebration of their refusal to grow-up. What for most of us would have remained late-night, dope or alcohol-induced skits performed under extreme confidentiality with one’s closest friend in our parents’ basements, Gass and Black have exhumed with pride for all-the-world to see. The very plotline represents the megalomaniacal imagination and scatological humor that almost every male teenager harbors: after receiving instructions from Ronnie James Dio to escape his oppressive home, JB (Jack Black) travels to Hollywood to locate his musical soul-mate, KG (Kyle Gass). Their forged destiny becomes apparent as they discover complimentary birthmarks on their asses — with “Tenac” and KG with “ious D”; hence Tenacious D is born.
While trying to create their “masterpiece”, The D stumbles across the fact that all the guitar greats use the same pick, the Pick of Destiny, which was last held by Angus Young and now resides in the Rock & Roll History Museum. Their fate is set: recover the pick to use its Satanic powers to become the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever.
Most endearing about the film is the way it remains permanently lodged within a late ’80s attitude that unrepentantly celebrates heavy metal. The D makes this abundantly clear in its lyrics to “The Metal”: “New Wave tried to destroy the metal / But the metal had its way / Grunge then tried to dethrone the metal / But metal was in the way / Punk rock tried to destroy the metal / But the metal was much too strong / Techno tried to defile the metal / But techno was proven wrong.” But it’s not only in their celebration but their deluded belief that heavy metal has remained undisputed musical champ despite all signs suggesting otherwise. It is a film that has arrived 20 years too late, and doesn’t care.
Coupled with this celebration and reworking of The Metal for Generation X purposes is The D’s idiotic and hilarious performances. This is best seen during their song, “Master Exploder”. JB uses his imagination to transform the band’s first mediocre, open-mic performance into a magisterial arrival of “The best band ever. Period.” as the MC deems them. JB announces in a disaffected voice that he “wrote this song five minutes ago” before leaping into its main riff. KG shreds his guitar so hard it begins to smoke. Although initially dressed in everyday fare of t-shirts and shorts, as the song progresses, they morph into more heavy metal garb and make-up: chain mail shirt, studded leather cape, black eyeliner, and lipstick.
We get an over-the-shoulder shot of JB, casting his hand out, as his powerful voice literally catches the mic on fire and blows the brains out of one audience member. Women hold their crotches in orgasmic response to the song’s phallic power, eventually causing one to fall over in sheer delirium. KG holds a two-necked guitar, with the necks spreading from each side like legs as he suggestively flickers his tongue at its middle. The lyrics are equally ridiculous: “I did not mean / to blow your mind / but that shit happens to me / all the tiiiiiiimmmeeee.” Yet, somehow against common sense, the song remains pretty good as it teeters uncertainly between satire and celebration.
Despite Tenacious D being a Hollywood film, it often possesses a raw feeling. The lyrics, in general, seem half-composed scribblings that could have become fully formed had The D possessed a longer attention span. For example, during a segue, JB sings, “It could have been disaster / Till the pupil found his master / Something rhymes with master / He’s teaching him the ways of rock.” But The D is much more concerned about envisioning its musical legacy than in investing in the time to create it.
The first song that they write and perform already chronicles their formation. JB announces, “It’s our first concert ever, so it’s kind of historical.” The song’s rhythm emulates every bad fantasy rock ballad from the ’70s as they sing with typical hyperbole: “We ride with kings on mighty steeds / across the Devil’s plain / We walked with Jesus and his cross / He did not die in vain.” Their fantasy far outstrips their talent, yet there is sheer joy in watching their grandiose performances as energy and enthusiasm unsuccessfully try to shove mediocrity off-stage.
The film particularly soars when at its most minimal and raw, when car chases, special effects, and swelling background music aren’t diluting the raw stupidity of The D. One of the film’s best scenes is when KG introduces JB to the “gig simulator” in order to prepare him for live performance. Dressed in outdated football helmet, safety goggles, and elbow pads, JB stands on a make-shift stage with three blankets nailed to the wall that serve as the curtain and broomstick with an empty toilet-paper roll on its end serves as the microphone. He nervously stares out to KG and a series of paper plates with badly drawn magic-marker unhappy faces on them taped to chairs representing a malcontent crowd. As JB begins, KG presses a tape recorder that randomly hurls insults like, “Hey, sing something, douche bag” and “Get on with it, dumb shit.” As JB tries to work the “crowd”, KG pulls strings that release beer bottles from the ceiling that strategically smash into his head. KG’s pathetic yet imaginative attempts to convert his living room into concert arena hilariously reveals how The D views any ordinary item as fodder for their grand designs. And JB’s earnest and vulnerable performance to impress KG is both touching and funny.
Also, as many have observed, Jack Black is simply a mesmerizing performer. Put him on stage and let him go; he is at his best. Many of his least successful films tend to constrain his performances within their overly plot-driven narratives. His better ones, High Fidelity and School of Rock, constantly break narrative momentum to provide him with the needed space for improvisation. Tenacious D vacillates between both these tendencies.
We have great scenes like when JB is washing dishes for KG. He sings with his back towards camera: “I’m cleaning this apartment / because it’s going to help me / May-Be / get in the Kyle Gas / Project.” He turns towards camera when he sings, “May-Be” and “Project” as if suddenly remembering that KG is in the room, trying to qualify his optimism. He continues to sing nonsense, back to us, throwing a towel over his shoulder that falls onto the floor. His hands unsuccessfully try to reach back and catch it. Instead of then turning around and picking it up, he throws his hands over his shoulders as if the towel somehow fell up rather than down. Such is the logic of Jack Black and the brilliance of his performances.
But the second half of the film looses the space for such performances as it becomes increasingly plot-centered. Even worse, it temporarily separates JB from KG, effectively disarming the film’s very strengths. In place of humor, we get pseudo-clever, post-modern nods as the film emulates a heist sequence from The Pink Panther (1964), a car chase from The Blues Brothers (1980), and the break-in sequence to Dean Wormer’s house from Animal House (1978).
Yet compensating for the film’s rather weak second half are the great extras that accompany the DVD. The D’s stupidity reigns supreme as we catch them behind the scenes at the recording studio, making a video, and on the film’s set. Also, one of the funniest scenes is only to be found in the “deleted scenes” section where The D sings, “The Government Really Sucks”, to a survivalist store owner (David Koechner) in order to get free gear. Koechner hilariously models his performance after Carl (Bill Murray), the dope-smoking greens-keeper from Caddyshack (1980), and offers one of the funniest deliveries when he speaks to himself after finally giving The D free walkie-talkies: “I fell for it. USA got me. Ugh, ain’t not surprise. (to no one in particular) Everything’s ten percent off. Ten percent off. (pause and then quickly) USA.”
Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny might not be a great film, but it is far from a bad one. Or perhaps, more accurately, if it is a bad film, if it is a stupid film, it is based upon the same badness and stupidity that makes millions of teenage boys secretly covet becoming the next “greatest band ever” while playing air guitar in their parents’ mildewy basements. It is the badness and stupidity that refuses to relinquish one’s imagination and energy to adult realities and boredom, and sees that behind every broomstick and empty toilet paper roll there stands the gateway to success.