One former Chattanoogan is back in town, this time on the big screen.
The documentary was produced by Future You Pictures and directed by Neil Berkeley. It has received positive reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, as well as garnering exceptional praise from film critic Leonard Maltin as “one of the most pleasurable moviegoing experiences” of the year.
“Beauty Is Embarrassing” compiles interviews with White, his family, artists, musicians, critics and even Pee-wee Herman and clips of the cross-country tour White undertook to promote a 2009 retrospective book of his work—all spliced with intimate looks at White working in his studio.
What emerges from the collage is a rather comprehensive view of the artist’s career coupled with the touching revelation of how pervasive White—who is perhaps best-known for his past puppet work on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and more recently for his word paintings—and his wacky, humor-based vision has been in television, music and art.
“You don’t have to know about art to see this movie,” White said. "If you’re from Chattanooga, if you’ve watched TV in the last 30 years, if you love an underdog rising up story—this is a classic movie experience. You’ve got drama. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll relate to it like crazy.”
From coffee to film
The idea for the documentary developed out of a long-standing admiration Berkeley had for the Hixson-born artist. The two first met in 2001 when Berkeley was putting in his time as an unpaid production assistant intern at a firm where White was also working.
The younger Los Angeles transplant frequently requested on-the-spot performances of character voices from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Berkeley now jokes that the film grew out of him stalking White for a decade and parlaying that into following him with a camera. The two reconnected in 2009 when Berkeley’s firm, brkly, began animating White’s work for a short film.
“I would bug him all the time to tell me stories, and he would tell me to get him coffee [when I was an intern],” Berkeley said. “I always wondered why no one had done a film on him. When I had the chance to do it, I jumped at it.”
White was more nonplussed about the idea and admits he wondered whether the younger artist could pull off the project—his first full-length documentary. It was Berkeley’s perseverance and ambition that impressed White enough to give it a shot.
Filming took place whenever it was possible. Berkeley went on the road with White as he promoted the book “Wayne White: Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve,” edited by designer Todd Oldham in Miami, Houston, Nashville and Chattanooga.
Berkeley remembers two initial sessions that cemented the documentary’s success and the relationship between the director and artist early on: a trip to film White install a sculpture of George Jones at Rice University and the series of four- to five-hour long interviews over the course of five days in White’s museum of a home studio.
The clips of those latter sessions anchor the feature and take the audience through a narrative from the early artistic encouragement in elementary school and the discovery of art as a 24-hour lifestyle while at Middle Tennessee State University and beyond to the East Village and Los Angeles.
The candid and incredibly detailed trek through White’s life not only connects the viewer to the artist, but also served to forge an immediate and strong bond between White and Berkeley. The naturalness of their interaction allows the film to transcend the boundaries of director and subject to two friends talking.
“Beauty Is Embarrassing” includes scenes of White creating art from start to finish. In one segment that involves his son, he sketches a portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson, builds a large, three-dimensional puppet head of the former president and then wears it out in Los Angeles in order to interact with people in full character voice and dress.
White hops from genre to genre purposefully out of personal curiosity, as well as a desire to keep the subject of his art and interest fresh. It’s also clear that working in multiple mediums is an avenue of bucking artistic authority or, as White said, “not being a slave to one tradition.”
The documentary also captures the humor of his work. Before moving into this latest phase of his work, White had worked as a designer and puppeteer with “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and an animator for “Beakman’s World," as well as Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel music videos.
His art was rooted in entertainment, a tone that guided his word paintings. These pieces are framed landscapes White finds and then onto which White paints colorful phrases that are often sidesplittingly profane. This work was viewed with suspicion by the refined art world—a subject that the film discusses.
“Humor is an important thing because it’s a way of telling the truth,” White said. “Laughter at its primary depth is a way to get at the truth without being preachy. Laughter touches me, so I use it as a truth-telling device.”
From film to future
“Beauty Is Embarrassing” has toured the independent film festival, premiering at SXSW and traveling next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It is currently available digitally for purchase on Amazon and iTunes and can be preordered on Netflix.
The documentary is slated to air in January on PBS, and the film will be available on DVD in the coming months.
White is also scheduling his return to Chattanooga, this time to put his mark on the Scenic City’s Riverwalk: In a public art project planned for next year, he will literally be installing words on the landscape. There is also a Wayne-O-Rama—a very American and Southern take on the classic tourist trap—in the works.
For now, after seeing the film, White is wondering where the energy to create his enormous body of work came from. He is, however, glad to contemplate the collection and enjoy how inspired other people are by the puppets, the paintings and the words.