For painter, puppet designer, production designer, and all-around badass Wayne White, creativity is less a core virtue than a state of being. White exudes ideas and originality: Creating seems to come as easily and naturally to him as breathing, and cannot be contained or limited to one art form. White is best known as one of the mad scientists behind Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he helped design the set, voiced beloved characters like bully Randy, and created puppets out of household objects with the ingenuity of a bohemian-art-world version of MacGyver.
But the admiring new documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing makes a convincing and entertaining case that White’s deliberately prankish contributions to pop culture extend far beyond being a core contributor to Paul Reubens’ cult classic. Alas, Beauty Is Embarrassing is entirely too admiring. White’s larger-than-life personality and wild trek through high, low, and pop art beg for a warts-and-all treatment, but every angle Beauty Is Embarrassing takes on White is artful and flattering.
The film follows White’s life and career from his inauspicious beginnings as an inveterate Southerner who headed to the art world Mecca of New York City following college. (There, he met future wife Mimi Pond, an established cartoonist and writer who had already made her name as the author of the hit Valley Girls’ Guide To Life and would go on to even greater fame as the writer of the first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.”) White’s career began to take off when he was tapped as part of the original team behind Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which began life as an insane New York art project that just happened to be a hit kids’ show before making the trip to Los Angeles, where the show became a massive cultural phenomenon. But White’s professional path following the show’s end was rocky and tumultuous before he decided to reinvent himself as a painter.
A riveting documentary could be made solely from White’s experiences on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a crazy powder keg of often marijuana-and-cocaine-fueled creativity, where the crew used the enormous downtime involved to tape a crazy, psychedelic shadow show solely for their own benefit and amusement. Drugs seem to have figured pretty prominently in White’s career and aesthetic, and may have contributed to his breakdown from overwork following the end of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But Beauty Is Embarrassing pushes drugs and mental illness deep into the background in its unrelentingly positive depiction of White’s professional resurrection as a prankish painter of vulgar word paintings. White spent many strange years in the professional wilderness following the demise of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but Beauty Is Embarrassing races right past them in its zeal to get to White’s comeback. Sweet, funny, and sincere, yet more than a little fawning, Beauty Is Embarrassing is an entertaining and exuberant tribute to a true original, but it would have more value if it captured the man in all of his complexity and imperfections, instead of highlighting only his admirable qualities at the expense of everything else.
Key features: Some fun but not ragingly essential deleted scenes.