Directed by Neil Berkeley. 14A. 91 min. Opens Sept. 28 at Bloor Hot Docs.
Getting props from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a pretty good indication that you’ve made it as a pop-culture icon. Groening is part of a resounding chorus (including Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh and a number of art-world heavies) singing the praises of Pee-wee’s Playhouse puppeteer/visual artist Wayne White in this loving portrait of the artist as an aging weirdo. Framed by and drawing largely on the content of White’s one-man show, from which the film gets its title, Beauty Is Embarrassing tells the story of White’s transition from local outcast in 1970s Tennessee to Emmy-winning Pee-wee collaborator to in-demand Hollywood puppeteer to his current gig making clever word paintings.
While White is a thoroughly interesting character—picture the insane ambition of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne crossed with the absurdist sensibilities of comedian Zach Galifianakis—the film doesn’t probe too deeply into his notably self-aware persona. Glimpses of White’s relationship with his wife—The Valley Girls’ Guide to Life author Mini Pond—and creative kids are sweet, as is seeing his stoic southern father get teary at the artist’s hometown speaking engagement.
But the most fascinating part of the film is the lengthy look into White’s time on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. From its humble beginnings as a guerrilla operation shot in a New York City loft to the Hollywood years where White and his co-puppeteers spend their downtime filming an alternate world of DIY programming, the copious behind-the-scenes footage and crazy stories are actually a cruel tease—here’s hoping that a full-length doc about the show materializes. In the meantime, the story of White’s crucial role in the absurdist kids’ program and his artistic rebirth years after the show went off the air is an inspiringtale—and one that director Neil Berkeley gives its appropriately wacky dues.