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Vol 9, Issue 48 Oct 8-Oct 14, 2003
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The Tao of Jack Black
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School of Rock puts the comic actor in a good place


By Woodrow J. Hinton
Jack Black is a comic actor, Rock musician and a rebel guru to college-age adults everywhere thanks to his smash hit film The School of Rock.

Jack Black rises from his seat in a Toronto hotel room and makes like a gunslinger for reasons only he understands.

"I think of myself as an entertainer," Black says, holding out his right hand like a makeshift gun. "I have different weapons in my entertainment arsenal. I have my acting bazooka." He then whips out his left hand. "And I have my music machete. You don't know what I'm going to come at you with, and I have my doodling."

Black looks foolish as he holds his pose, which is a good thing for a comedian. Over the past three years, he has appeared in various films like Saving Silverman, a disappointing evil girlfriend comedy, the dizzy road comedy Jesus' Son, in which he played a pill-popping hospital orderly, and Shallow Hal, his first lead role, playing a superficial girl chaser who falls in love with a 300-pound woman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Black's goal was always to make people laugh; something he accomplishes effortlessly during the course of the interview.

Black's other goal, signified by his outstretched left hand, is to rock hard as Jables, his concert stage alter ego, and co-leader with actor Kyle Gass of "the D," the Rock duo Tenacious D. The way Black sees things; he's something of a 21st-century renaissance man, a comic actor and a Rock musician, a rebel hero to college-age adults everywhere.

This is Jack Black's moment and he's more than ready. His latest movie, The School of Rock is a box-office smash, and Black sees himself as the grand master of Rock & Roll, prepared to spread his reach-for-the-sky doctrine to a new generation of fans. He's convinced himself of his guru calling and for the moment, that's good enough for us.

Black's lifestyle has nothing in common with Thoreau, Kerouac, Whitman or Celine, but that's not the point. They are all philosophers of life, Black included. He might not embrace Eastern philosophical principles, unless you consider that the landmark Punk Rock band The Ramones are from Queens, N.Y.

The "how" of Jack Black -- meaning how did this actor/musician become an adored cult figure -- is the first step to understanding the Tao of Jack Black. Director Richard Linklater, best known for the independent films Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, aims for a commercial hit with his Rock & Roll comedy The School of Rock. In the film, Black plays Dewey Finn, a failed Garage band musician who passes himself off as a substitute teacher at an exclusive prep school where Finn teaches his young students how to play Rock music. In exchange, the talented children help Finn grow up. The School of Rock is lightweight whimsy, capable of drawing large audiences; which is probably what Linklater had in mind.

Linklater, Black and screenwriter Mike White come to the Toronto International Film Festival in support of The School of Rock because the director clearly wants a boost of credibility for his Paramount Pictures release. The School of Rock is fun and lively, and the audience response has been Rock-concert-like exciting. A 1,000-plus crowd gave the film a standing ovation after one of its early festival screenings. With School of Rock, Linklater reminds us that having a good time does not mean he has to lose any of his filmmaking technique.

Asked about how close Dewey Finn resembles his life, Black jokes that Finn represents "87 percent" of himself.

"It's a lot of me and a lot of what I like to play, which is not necessarily me," he says. "But I really like to be intense, and there were lots of good opportunities to be intensely passionate about the Rock and the communication of the secret inner meaning of Rock which is something that really appeals to me, and I want to do."

Black, born in 1969, grew up in Hermosa Beach and Culver City. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, and he went through a rebellion stage that included plenty of drugs. He discovered acting at a high school for troubled youth. His first break came when actor Tim Robbins accepted him in his comedy troupe, The Actors Gang.

Black expresses a simple, effortless, joyous love for music and comedy. He is unpretentious, dressed casually in a plaid shirt and casual pants. He basically looks like his sloppy School of Rock character, Dewey Finn. He has the look of a comedian: shaggy brown hair, a pudgy body and arching eyebrows.

Black is charming and passionate, but not the least bit thought-provoking, no matter how hard he tries. His rebel personality and smart-aleck banter keeps him from becoming too intellectual on the topic of Rock. He jokes about crying at favorite songs and looks back nostalgically at his first concert, Devo, and his first metal album, Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard of Ozz. Black is informed about the subject, but he's no egghead. He's an average Joe, which suits him fine.

The School of Rock is the first film to truly synchronize with Black's personality, and he reciprocates with an invigorating performance. In the film, he tries to look the way he believes a teacher would look: sweater vest, bow tie and casual pants.

Black has pluck, despite his preference for AC/DC-inspired playacting. He's agile when it comes to physical comedy, whipping his round body on-screen with astounding speed and dexterity. Black's inner self is a Rock star begging to break free from his body's Buddha belly. He's convinced that Rock is timeless and sees himself as the appropriate messenger for spreading the gospel. Asked a simple question: Has MTV destroyed Rock? Black answers with gusto.

"Obviously bad for Rock. Look at where Rock is now" Black says. "It was inevitable. If it weren't MTV, somebody else would have had a music video show. It took away the mystery."

Jack Black is receiving all the attention for The School of Rock, but writer/actor Mike White deserves equal credit for scripting the rare Hollywood film that proves feel-good entertainment does not need to be hokey. The School of Rock is about kids, but it's not the least bit juvenile. It's soulful, smart and realistic.

White wrote the film specifically with Black in mind. White also plays Finn's flustered roommate, Ned Schneebly, with common sense and compassion. It's clear Schneebly likes Finn, even if he doesn't approve of everything he does.

White, known for his work in the independent films Chuck &Buck; and The Good Girl as well as the short-lived TV series, Freaks and Geeks, keeps The School of Rock from becoming a cliché.

"I think there's a sweetness to him that he's not able to show," White says, speaking earlier in the day. "There's more color to him than the stuff we've seen ... I wanted a sweeter side of Jack, but we didn't want the film to be cheesy, like a treacly, silly family movie."

White lived next door to Black in Los Angeles for three years and they shared an apartment in New York during the making of School of Rock. He enjoyed the reunion, despite the frequent jolts of craziness.

"He (Black) does his homework, and he comes prepared," White says. "We were roommates during the movie, and I remember the toilet exploded and the fire alarm went off, and he's always in his underwear and I thought: I'm living in a Jack Black movie."

In The School of Rock, angry upper-middle-class parents demand Finn's head on a platter for exposing their kids to Rock & Roll instead of literature, writing and geometry. The same thing is true in real life with parents questioning the impact Black's crazy comic personality and his Tenacious D antics have on their kids.

It's not like anything can stop Black. His acting career is in full swing. A Tenacious D DVD release featuring concert footage and the 1999 HBO series about the band is due out next month. The script for the Tenacious D movie is finished and awaiting a studio deal.

For Black, School of Rock the movie imitates School of Rock his life. The film has an intentional happy ending and, depending on its level of success, its happy ending may trickle over into Black's own life. He follows the flow of his comic banter. His conversation includes proverbs, maxims and lessons regarding past exploits. It's a verbal flashback to his performance in High Fidelity, where he played a zealous record store clerk constantly telling John Cusack's character which records are OK to like and which ones are crap.

On the eve of his biggest movie, Jack Black has peace of mind. That's what the Tao is all about. ©

E-mail Steve Ramos

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Previously in Film

Bittersweet Blues of Film Director Carl Franklin wants Out of Time to be colorblind Interview By Steve Ramos (October 1, 2003)

We Love the '70s Fall films recall New Hollywood but they're no substitute By Rodger Pille (October 1, 2003)

Reel Answer Spanish Actor Javier Bardem By Steve Ramos (October 1, 2003)


Other articles by Steve Ramos

Boy, You'll Be a Lounge Lizard Soon Alcohol has lubricated many rites of passage (October 1, 2003)

Arts Beat The Art of Walking Away (October 1, 2003)

Couch Potato: Video and DVD A Decade Under the Influence is an intoxicating look at film (October 1, 2003)


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