It’s fair to say that Jack Black is a bit of a ‘marmite’ actor. You’ll either love his unique brand of brashness and lack of subtlety, or it’ll have you avoiding a film at all costs. This persona has served him incredibly well, however, considering that he’s now enjoyed over 30 years on TV and the big screen.
Starting his career in a handful of TV movies and series, Black has since gone on to star in the likes of Kung Fu Panda, The Holiday, King Kong, School of Rock, Tropic Thunder, and the recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Alongside being an incredibly talented musician and touring the world as one half of comedy rock duo Tenacious D, Black has certainly kept himself incredibly busy since his TV debut in 1984.
While Black’s recent film exploits have seen him star in fairly mainstream blockbusters with varying levels of success, his earlier career found him making far more interesting choices such as Mars Attacks!, The Cable Guy, and High Fidelity, the latter helmed by the man-of-the-moment – John Cusack.
Remember those days when Cusack still made decent film choices? The early Noughties were undoubtedly his acting and screenwriting peak. Three years after the wonderful Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack once again teamed up with writers Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, this time to adapt Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity. Centred around self-obsessed record store owner Rob Gordon (Cusack), he begins to chart his worst ever break-ups following his recent split from long-term girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). Rob’s choices are mind-bogglingly self-centred and he constantly fails to see that he is the real issue in a relationship, not any of his ex-girlfriends.
When he isn’t tracking down his exes to justify his own failings, he spends his time in his Chicago-based record store with his two inept employees Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Black). Barry manages to make even Rob seem likable as he spends his time insulting both colleagues and customers, often due to their personal music tastes. Written specifically for Black, Barry is a whirlwind of anger and mania, looking down his nose at everyone around him. Somehow though, he becomes the character you look forward to seeing the most.
With only a little over 15 minutes of screen time, Black gets some of the most hilarious lines in the film, such as deciding funeral songs for Laura’s dad (which promptly sees Rob attempting to throttle him), and refusing to sell records to customers just because he’s taken a disliking to them. He’s a complete snob, as are Rob and Dick, but he’s far more spiteful than either of them manage to be.
While certain parts of Barry’s persona form part of a thread that’s consistent through Black’s various characters, he’s one of the most tactless and snide of them all. Jeff Portnoy in Tropic Thunder is similar in terms of the sheer energy that Black exudes throughout the film, but Barry is based far more in reality – you wouldn’t be surprised to find someone exactly like him working in a sleepy record store somewhere.
Barry does, however, get some form of redemption at the end of the film. Rob reluctantly allows him to perform with his band ‘Barry Jive and the Uptown Five’ at an EP launch party, expecting nothing but a complete shambles from his colleague. Instead, Black performs Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, showcasing a pretty impressive vocal range that those unfamiliar with Tenacious D may not have ever expected.
Black swiftly followed up High Fidelity with starring roles in Shallow Hal and School of Rock, both showcasing his undeniable skill at playing the unlikely leading man. Usually specialising in slightly, or very, annoying characters, Black manages to always remain the hero in his leading roles. Even in The Holiday where he plays a far more ‘normal’ and subtle character, it’s surprisingly believable that he would win over Kate Winslet and whisk her off her feet.
With The House with a Clock in Its Walls out this month and the sequel to Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in pre-production, Black continues his foray into the family-friendly Hollywood mainstream without showing any signs of losing his very particular identity.