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Jack Black goes back to school

Jack Black masquerades as a teacher in “The School of Rock.” Through music — loud, ear-splitting music — he and his somewhat nerdy fifth-graders find a goofy way to show off their talents and express their frustrations.

Jack Black is the kind of rock star who trashes a hotel room with a pillow fight. The stubby loudmouth is so uncool, he comes around full-circle back to coolness — imagine McDonald’s goofy purple Grimace with AC/DC attitude.

That's the heart of Black’s latest comedy, “The School of Rock.” He stars as a loser guitarist who masquerades as a teacher at a snooty private school, giving uptight pupils lessons in the three Rs: Rock, Rebellion and Rowdiness.

Through music — loud, ear-splitting music — the teacher and his somewhat nerdy fifth-graders find a goofy way to show off their talents and express their frustrations. Their goal, as Black explains it, is to “stick it to the Man,” who in this case is a group of unwaveringly strict parents.

But Black, who in his spare time is a singer-guitarist with the sardonic folk-terror band Tenacious D, says he’s not really on a mission to preach the gospel of metal, punk and grunge to America’s youth.

“I just do what I love — and I love to rock,” Black professes, his signature eyebrows arched after slumping on a couch in his hotel suite. He grins with mock evil. “If I so happen to influence some children along the way, all the better.”

A moral, really
There wasn’t much Black needed to teach his Lilliputian co-stars. All the kids play their own instruments through most of the film, and he rocked out live with the youngsters on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” last week.

But, in a rare moment of straightforwardness, Black acknowledged that “The School of Rock” does have a moral.

“It’s really a message for the parents more than the kids,” he said. “The parents should ease up and let their kids follow their path. If they want to experiment with art, don’t stifle it like those weirdos who have their kids lives planned out all the way. You’re just doing damage.”

Then the facade begins to crack. Black’s omnipresent silly side inevitably emerges to thwart his sincerity. “In fact, I’m going to go on the record as saying you’re doing Van Damme-age,” he closes his eyes, snickering about the cornball Belgian action star. “You’re doing, Jean Claude Van Damme-age.”

Black is earning his best reviews for “School of Rock” since his breakthrough as an ultra-snobbish record store clerk in 2000’s “High Fidelity” — another uncool guy who earned his bragging rights by strutting fearlessly onstage to sing his heart out.

His other comedies “Shallow Hal” and “Saving Silverman” captured Black’s sarcasm, but not his vulnerability, while “School of Rock” was composed by screenwriter and co-star Mike White to fuse both of those qualities with the star’s passion for song.

Up next: Tenacious D
Music also is the focus of Black’s next project: a movie about Tenacious D, which he hopes to start in early 2004.

In describing the film, Black wanders back and forth between fantasy and reality, flippancy and sincerity.

“The D?” Black stalls when asked about the band. He composes his thoughts, then unleashes them.

“We have now officially completed the Tenacious D screenplay. It’s called ‘Tenacious D in ...’” he spreads his hands, as if revealing magic, “‘The Pick of Destiny.’

“Five years in the making, countless corpses in our wake, we have in our grasp certainly what will come to be known as the greatest document of historical significance since the dawn of time.”

The 34-year-old makes that proclamation in an aristocratic tone — the one he also uses to ask the room service attendant for ketchup and mayo with his bunless cheeseburger.

Don’t let this colossal arrogance fool you — being confidently self-delusional is part of the cult of D. The band sings power ballads about Sasquatch, vulgar love songs, and boasts in its biggest hit, “Tribute,” about composing “the best song in the world.”

In the Tenacious D film, Black said, his character runs away from home “because I want to go to Hollywood and stake my fortune in the name of rock. When I meet Kyle, we form Tenacious D, and then we go on our first quest. Our first LEGENDARY quest.”

Other projects
In the real world, Black met Gass — a portly guitarist who resembles a young, sinister Burl Ives — in the early 1990s when both worked at the Actors’ Gang playhouse, which was run by Tim Robbins. Robbins helped launch their film careers, giving Black a part in “Bob Roberts” and both Gass and Black roles as amateur ventriloquists in “Cradle Will Rock.”

While Black has “School of Rock” in theaters, he has finished two other movies: “Envy,” with Ben Stiller, and the animated “Shark Tale,” in which he voices a shark named Lenny.

He also has a DVD of his band’s music, videos and HBO specials coming out Nov. 4, titled — pompously enough — “Tenacious D: The Complete Masterworks.”

But surely someday, when VH1 does a “Behind the Music” special about career achievements of the deviant nice guy Jack Black, there must be some heartbreaking low point to uncover.

“Smurfberry Crunch,” Black says.

At age 13, he appeared in a commercial for the Atari video game “Pitfall,” and his schoolmates were in awe. Then came a second gig: a cursed cereal commercial in which he pitched sugary puffs alongside the animated imps known as The Smurfs.

“My stock plummeted at school,” Black said. “‘Pitfall’ was cool. Being in a Smurfberry Crunch cereal ad and being pulled along in a red wagon ... ?”

He shakes his head, falling silent.

Not cool.