Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
For fairly obvious reasons, not many documentaries are made about writers. Unless there are saucy personal anecdotes or a specific work’s legacy to pursue, words on a page simply aren’t visually compelling. Therefore, it’s only natural that the bulk of bio-docs on creative minds are dominated by those with output meant to be viewed. Even then, however, there must be a strong human interest element behind the creations for a film treatment to make sense. When those crucial pieces converge with deft filmmaking, a special union takes place on screen. Such is the case with Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing, an exceptional, passionate profile of the equally exceptional and passionate Wayne White.
Framed by an autobiographical one-man show at L.A.’s famed Largo nightclub, White’s life unspools with eye candy to spare. From his Tennessee childhood to joining the East Village art scene after college to his current California existence, he’s created art, the majority of which has been preserved to some degree. Amplifying the experience, Berkeley jumps between the past and present, refusing to let the pace lag while keeping the biography fairly chronological. With unabashed participation from White and his family, plus a wealth of archival footage from throughout his life, a well-rounded portrait emerges of an artist not just enthusiastic about what he does, but of people everywhere doing what they love, regardless of the financial payoff.
A model for that philosophy, White’s output is thoroughly impressive. Bringing a psychedelic sensibility to his work, his early puppetry and set design for television programs caught the attention of Paul Reubens, who hired him as part of the art design team on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Other recognizable work includes the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video, but Beauty Is Embarrassing succeeds most in capturing the process behind White’s numerous word paintings. Taking generic landscape scenes from thrift stores, he geometrically paints a phrase over them, often littered with the f-bomb, his four-letter word of choice. Witnessing the steps that go into creating such pieces provides a fascinating glimpse inside an artistic mind, and though the phrases’ meanings aren’t always clear, they’re nonetheless consistently amusing.
In exploring White’s life and work, Beauty Is Embarrassing keeps a light tone, and though given a giant opening, Berkeley is unwilling to go darker. White talks about wearing himself out, doing one-man animation work for television shows and a music video for The Offspring, which led to a reliance on anti-depressants. Instead of delving into the issues surrounding substance abuse, the film uses it as a soft low point before the publication of his ironic and prophetically titled anthology, Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve. Regardless of the impact that less-savory period may have had on White’s life, the film sticks to its upbeat tone, leaving the anecdote as little more than an afterthought.
As engaging and well-made as Berkeley’s film is, there are so many similarly adept bio-docs are out there. The general consistency of these titles is both a blessing and a mild curse for such a focus. While such projects bring greater awareness to an underexposed artists, representing the documentary at its best, they’re also fairly homogenous in their approach. Despite a recent uptick in high-quality documentaries, the general laws that govern this kind of filmmaking keep it limited in numerous cinematic regards that narrative films can more easily dodge. Only a select few like Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine manage to innovate and take the material to another level, and when a work of that caliber comes around, it’s a special event indeed. Still, when bio-docs are as entertaining and informative as Beauty Is Embarrassing, there’s little to do but enjoy it.
Not Rated (though White’s penchant for swearing would give it a hard R)
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