How much documentary is any life worth? A rude question, maybe, but one unintentionally posed by “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” an amiable if not especially urgent celebration of the life and work of Wayne White.
Who’s Wayne White? If you were (or are) a fan of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the seminally surreal 1986-1990 children’s show, you’re familiar with White’s work. An artist-puppeteer whose handmade aesthetic sits squarely at the intersection of folk art and East Village punk, he created and gave voice to some of the show’s more memorable characters, including bratty Randy — Howdy Doody’s evil twin — and jazzbo Dirty Dog.
Recently, White has found success salvaging thrift-shop landscape paintings and inserting humorous phrases (many of them unprintable in a family newspaper) in panoramic block letters. These probably represent his personality as a Southern-fried art world rebel better than anything he ever did for TV.
White’s a character, for sure, with wild blue eyes, a Wolfman Jack beard, and a boundless sense of anarchic enthusiasm, but do we need a 90-minute film about him? Director Neil Berkeley and his co-writer Chris Bradley think so, and so does a gallery of sympathetic talking heads that includes “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, designer Todd Oldham, Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, and lonesome Paul Reubens, looking years past Pee-wee and unaccountably sedate.
Making the main case for White is White himself, via recurring footage from a theatrical evening in which he tours his life and art for an appreciative live audience and by way of the director’s chronological dog-trot through his subject’s life.
It’s an interesting life but, honestly, it’s not all that interesting. We go back to rural Tennessee and meet the artist’s parents — laconic but loving, they let his freak flag fly from an early age — and hear about his college days as a ’70s art hippie. A spell in the downtown scene of ’80s New York leads to “Playhouse,” a relocation to Los Angeles, three Emmys, music videos (Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time”), and a creative slump after Pee-wee goes off the air. “Beauty Is Embarrassing” has a vague “Behind the Music” shape to it but is too uncritical of its subject to draw blood. If there are demons, they’re kept in the closet.
White comes across as the kind of guy who’s a ton of fun at parties but may not be the easiest person to live with. Indeed, we want more of his wife, cartoonist Mimi Pond. Centered and dryly funny, she talks of putting her own career on hold to raise the couple’s two children, both now artists themselves. White’s childhood collaborator, Mike Quinn, who stayed behind in Tennessee — we see the two build a giant puppet version of a local private school’s 19th-century founder — also represents a story left untold.
Throughout the movie, White crusades to put the fun back into fine art — watching the art critic for the LA Times squirm as he tries to entertain this notion is almost worth the price of admission — and you want to cheer him on, even if his repurposed paintings come to look like a one-joke gimmick after a while. (A few shots of White’s sketchbooks provide a broader and impressively varied glimpse of his talent.) By the end, you’re glad you met him, but why elevate this one man above all the other feverish imaginations that fizzed through “Playhouse”? “Beauty Is Embarrassing” is content to hang out on the porch when it could be making its case.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him
on Twitter @tyburr.