- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

LOS ANGELES — Beatles or Stones? . Jack Black agonizes over the question as though it’s one of the thorniest conflicts of ethics to ever bedevil mankind.

“That’s the hardest question,” says Mr. Black, who, as a shamming substitute teacher in “School of Rock,” converts a classroom of impressionable fifth-grade prep students who don’t know Lennon from Lenin to the religion of rock ‘n’ roll.

“I’m gonna go with the Stones,” he says, then pauses, as though the view — a minority opinion — needs time to sink in. “They have a little more soul.”

“The Beatles probably wrote better songs, ultimately,” he adds, “but they didn’t rock as hard.”

We’re in a well-appointed Four Seasons conference room in Beverly Hills, and Mr. Black is wearing a neon-green T-shirt advertising the indie-pop band the Shins. The shirt has just been pressed, with sharp creases down the short sleeves — courtesy, no doubt, of the on-call laundry services afforded to movie stars working promotional junkets.

The beard, however, is scraggly, the sweatpants rumpled around his wide frame — the look of the tubby rogue you can’t help but love.

Mr. Black, a Los Angeles native, takes rock music deadly seriously, and not just as a listening devotee; he sings with a guttural oomph that could pass for genuine passion (Marvin Gaye probably didn’t roll over in his grave when Mr. Black dug into “Let’s Get It On” in the movie “High Fidelity”) and, since age 23, has played a mean guitar.

Rocking hard and rocking softly is the difference between authentic coolness and fakery for Mr. Black, now 34. When the rock-illiterate kiddies in “School of Rock” say they’re fans of, for example, Christina Aguilera, he didn’t have to feign disgust.

“It’s baffling to me,” he says with barely contained contempt, “that J. Lo sells a ton of albums. It’s just because she’s really hot-looking. She’s not a good singer.”

Thus the paradox — and the appeal — of Jack Black: He reveres the hoary, decreasingly hip institution that classic rock has become while making wicked fun of it at the same time.

“No one’s gonna take me seriously taking rock seriously,” Mr. Black concedes.

“Once I discovered the comedy-rock combination, I was really thrilled. I didn’t feel painted in a corner; I felt like I painted myself into the picture,” he says.

Long a rock aficionado, he tried to do music independently of comedy. It was a disaster.

“In high school, I was in a band, and we tried to do music straight for about 10 minutes,” Mr. Black says of his first, ill-fated rock sortie. “We went to a party and played half of [Black Sabbaths] ‘Iron Man,’ but we had to stop in the middle because no one was paying attention, everyone was talking to each other and we just stopped and said, ‘No one likes us. Let’s just go home.’

“That was devastating,” he continues. “I didn’t even try again until many years later, when I started Tenacious D.”

The infamous Tenacious D duo first surfaced on HBO in 1999 with a handful of well-received short sketches about the paunchy pair’s infantile libidos and, of course, confronting and overcoming Satan with rock. (Along with D-man Kyle Gass, he has written the definitive Tenacious D movie, which he’s scheduled to film early next year.)

As “This Is Spinal Tap” did 20 years ago, Mr. Black has made the air-guitar bravado of arena rock safe for a new generation by walking the fine line between satire and disrespect. For that, rock disciples owe him their thanks, but the validation comes at the price of gentle parody.

“It seems like you can’t really make a good rock movie without it being a comedy,” he says. “They go hand in hand. I don’t know why; there’s something inherently funny about rock.”

Before the days of “the D,” Mr. Black acted in musical theater; his first movie role came in 1992, with Tim Robbins’ political satire “Bob Roberts,” in which he played a teenager in the thrall of a reactionary politician.

Virtually unrecognizable in a crew cut, Mr. Black still flashed the demonic stare that has become one of his main comedic riffs.

Since then, Mr. Black has played memorably mouthy sidemen in such movies as “High Fidelity.” Even in subpar flicks such as “Orange County” and “Saving Silverman,” his bedraggled loser chutzpah has stood out.

There’s something more to Jack Black than slacker humor, however, and it’s the same something that allowed John Belushi to transcend “Animal House.” It’s the ability to do comedy while selling music out the back door.

And, according to writer-actor Mike White (“Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl”), Mr. Black has a soft spot we don’t normally see. Mr. White, who lived next door to Mr. Black for three years and roomed with him in New York City during the “School of Rock” shoot, says there’s an avuncular side to Jack Black.

“He’s very inclusive and unpretentious,” Mr. White says. “I thought that sweet side of him hadn’t been completely explored.”

Mr. Black has yet to reach comedy-music nirvana. He is still in search of his “Blues Brothers,” but the buzz surrounding “School of Rock,” opening today in area theaters, is that it could be his breakthrough, the one that graduates him from cult status to mainstream star.

Mr. White wrote “School of Rock” with Mr. Black specifically in mind. “I thought, ‘If there was a script that played to all his comic strengths and musical strengths, it would be fun,’” Mr. White says.

“This is so custom-made to his particular skill set,” says director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”), “that it could start a whole new genre of Jack Black film. He’s an amazingly talented guy, a very unique comedic talent.”

There’s already talk of a sequel, but Mr. Black isn’t having it. “I don’t think there can be one,” he says. “The cool part of the story is the formation of this school of rock,” and once that’s done, so goes the novelty of the movie.

He’s got his sights set on a meatier role in a biopic that could be the mother of all rock movies.

“I would love to play a young Ozzy Osbourne,” he says, “but, apparently, I heard that [Mr. Osbournes wife] Sharon was in negotiations with — what’s that Irish guy with the foul mouth?

“Colin Farrell. Which I think is a huge mistake. It’s clearly me.”

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