Joshua Reviews Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing [SXSW 2012 Review]

How does one become a multi-time Emmy award winning artist from such humble beginnings as being born in the mountains of Tennessee? Well, just ask beloved cartoonist/set designer/sculptor/voice actor/painter Wayne White, or just watch the new documentary looking into the life of this artist, entitled Beauty Is Embarrassing.

Directed by Neil Berkeley, the film looks into the rather eventful life of this artist, who became a cartoonist in New York, only to become a founding creator of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and now the painter of some of the most well received sarcastic word paintings around.   White has lived one of the most interesting lives an artist can live, and while his work may not be considered the highest form of visual art, often getting scoffs from ‘pretentious’ art critics, it has garnered White a large amount of fame, and also pumped some humor back into the stuffy world of art.

And Beauty has pumped some life back into the world of documentary filmmaking.

Structurally, the film is a standard biography.   Looking into every aspect of White’s life, the film thrives when our lead is on screen, giving us his story, from his mouth.   White is a massively charismatic figure, who has lived an equally interesting life.   From cartoonist to Playhouse creator, this man has worn a million different hats, living what very much can be defined as a modern life.   Given today’s economic landscape, White has lived the life of what many people of this generation will ultimately live.   Going from job to job, hoping to make some sort of splash somewhere, and White is the perfect example that this is not just some sort of pipedream, but with the right focus, something palpable.

The interviews here are also quite entertaining.   Featuring bits with the likes of Mark Mothersbaugh, Matt Groening and Todd Oldham, the film proves that while White’s name may not be the best known, his influence and impact is felt around the world. Also featuring interviews with White’s family, friends, and loved ones, the film is a touching ode to a man who signifies a lost era of purely and viscerally creative people.

Aesthetically, the film is perfectly paired with its subject matter.   Beauty features some really great cinematography, and has a kinetic sense of style that fits like a glove alongside its subject matter.   Using archival and home footage, the film gives us a great look into this artist’s life, and the world in which he both helped create, and subsequently lived in.   Sure, the film lacks a sense of pure importance, something that films like The Interrupters and other beloved documentaries have featured, but it is the film’s sense of joy and child-like wonder that make it not only a pertinent bit of filmmaking, but one that will have people absolutely hooked.

Overall, the film is a purely must-see documentary.   Beauty does lack the politically or sociologically relevant subject matter of many modern documentaries, but what the film may lack in cultural importance it makes up for in both pure entertainment value and a level of relevance that is shockingly palpable.   One of the most engaging documentary features in a very, very long time, Beauty is not at all embarrassing.   On the contrary.   It’s nothing but pure entertainment.   Beautiful in every possible way.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.