“Beauty is Embarrassing” traces a vibrant, evolving career and dips into the overloaded but fantastic head of Wayne White — Emmy-winning “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” designer, current respected painter, and everything from sculptor to animator to monologist to banjo balladeer in between.
An artist who sees potential beauty in a garbage heap and pokes rudely piercing fun at despotic authority figures ranging from a school principal to a U.S. president, White is a terrific documentary subject.
Writer-director Neil Berkeley, riding on White’s wavelength, delivers an uncritical but irresistibly joyful picture of him.
Combining old footage; new animation; interviews with family, friends and arts-world figures (such as Matt Groening and Mark Mothersbaugh); and excerpts from White’s autobiographical solo show, Berkeley and two co-writers chronicle the life of the Tennessee-born White, a “founding father of the current state of pop art,” according to one observer.
We travel with White through his southern childhood and his underground-artist days in Greenwich Village. A career highlight: his job as a designer, puppeteer and voice-over actor on the 1980s child-geared (and stoner-adored) Pee-wee Herman show — a plum job initially located in a former sweatshop — where he was part of a bonkers creative team.
Post-Pee-wee, White had numerous industry jobs, created award-winning videos and overloaded his circuits for a spell.
Recently, he has achieved success with his “word” paintings — humorous and profane phrases painted over dime-store landscapes.
Along the way are visits to White’s home, where he can’t seem to stop making sculptures from found objects (“I love sticks”).
We meet his wife, the cartoonist Mimi Pond. We spend time with White’s parents; some of the film’s most moving passages involve their proud regard for their artistic son.
We’re also shown oodles of White’s art, which often contains a DIY look and irreverent humor. With the latter, White happily discredits the art establishment mind-set that equates the comical with the lightweight.
A centerpiece attraction: White’s gigantic satirical puppet model of Lyndon B. Johnson, depicted as a “big old country-boy tyrant.”
This is a small film, and as artist docs go, it doesn’t have the scope or import of the recent “Ai Wei: Never Sorry.” Nor does it present its subject remotely critically. Does he truly have no detractors?
But it is an entertaining and inspiring portrait of a driven artist, and it is an ebullient salute to artistic endeavor.
Berkeley, making his feature-length documentary debut, winningly operates in a bright, loose-flowing, gently kooky and deep-down earnest mode reflective of White. The animation sequences (one depicts White’s romance with Pond) add original pizzazz to the brew.
The grand total is 87 minutes of contagious creative energy. You might just start combing your waste bins for art materials after watching this film.