Beautiful Losers Movie Review
In Beautiful Losers, Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard's energized documentary celebrates the do-it-yourself subculture of artists engulfed in skateboarding, graffiti, and punk who gravitated toward the Lower East Side Alleged Gallery (of which Rose was the curator) in the late '80s. Here a motley collection of geeks, oddballs, lunatics, and downtowners -- including Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kigallen, Mike Mills, Barry McGee, Jo Jackson, Chris Johanson, Harmony Korine, Stephen Powers, Geoff McFeteridge, Thomas Campbell, and Ed Templeton -- recreated the cooperative spirits of Renoir with unfettered innocence, a lack of pretentiousness, and childlike glee, slapping together their artworks like Chuck Jones characters in heat. As one artist remarks in the film, they were just a "bunch of dumb, bored kids. All you had to do was have heart." Or as Stephen Powers comments, "It's really bad. I love it!"
Rose charts the rise and rise of this collection of happy-go-lucky outsiders with Rose as their Captain Nemo, navigating their success through a series of exhibitions at his Alleged Gallery. With splintered talking-head documentation and an edgy score by Money Mark of The Beastie Boys, the fortunes of the gallery are documented, rising along with the artists from the flotsam-and-jetsam 1989 art parties, to the crazy success of the 1992 Minimal Tracks skateboard art show which was picked up by a LA gallery and led to the first critical interest in the group, to the landmark 1997 group show, The Independents, which was the last hurrah of innocent abandon for the DIY group. Here, articles in The New York Times and Artforum transformed the group of subversive artists into the mainstream flavors of the month, as the artists sought to "appeal to both the smartest guy in the room and the dumbest guy in the room."
Beautiful Losers is a celebration of rude and raw art and the kinetic charge of experiencing something fresh and undefiled. Rose and Leonard punctuate the snarky comments of the artists with a jagged, jittery, and unfinished editing style, reflecting the type of art the film represents. The artists pile onto to one another like a chain car accident, rejecting the great man theory of artistic creation in favor of conveying the group dynamics of the movement and the ultimate goal and hope of creating a grassroots community art. The film dazzles with a sassy pizzazz, the filmmakers with the artists all the way in their struggle to continue to keep connecting with the chaos.
To be sure, the artists represented now all look like big kids pushing 40. Steve Powers is seen instructing a barber in the art of cutting his Eraserhead hairdo to perfection. Chris Johanson fondly traces the straight lines in a recently completed painting. Filmmaker Mike Mills swings from a rope swing and later on attaches an abandoned shopping cart to the rope and swings along with it. But the screwiest moment of all is when, at the height of the DIY fame, the artists were corralled into appearing at a Tokyo gallery. Once in Japan the artists were paid $1,000 a day to create mayhem in the city, which they did, captured on film by Cheryl Dunn, the most hilariously being a roped off car crash with the Japanese crowd applauding wildly, as if the whole event were a Japanese game show.
It is a rare experience indeed that an art documentary comes along that is not self-serving, self-important, and/or depressing. Beautiful Losers is a film that is infused with cool, invigorating life and with the bountiful joy and blessed-out abandon of artistic creation.
Not so sure on that "beautiful" part, but hey...