In Beautiful Losers, co-directors Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard ably convey how several young “street artists” became highly regarded and influential while trying (for the most part) to maintain their originality and integrity. The film also touches on the difficulties and heartbreak associated with living outside the mainstream, although more could have been done in this delicate area.
If Beautiful Losers sounds at all familiar, you might be thinking of at least two other concurrent releases—The Cool School, a documentary about the L.A. art scene of years past, and Beautiful Loser, a new indie feature (totally unrelated) opening soon.
In any case, Beautiful Losers documents the maverick DIY (“do-it-youself”) artists of the early 1990s in New York City, but makes sure to include those who were not always acknowledged for their endeavors, including Barry McGee, the creator of “dreaded” graffiti art, and graphic designers Margaret Kilgallen and Mike Mills, who reworked statements and logos into provocative concept art. The biggest “star” name of the bunch is filmmaker Harmony Korine (Gummo, Mister Lonely), though Rose and Leonard do not give him special treatment or extra running time. Money Mark (real name: Mark Ramos-Nishita), who composed original music for this film, gets a few segments, but co-director Rose, an artist at the time, modestly leaves himself out of the group portrait.
By mixing old footage of and by the artists (including some clever animation), stills of new works, and the recent interviews, Beautiful Losers brings to life a pre-9/11 New York probably forgotten by many. Though some of the artists today seem undaunted by the changes around them, most of them have moved on in new directions. Here, the doc becomes more celebratory of the group when (at times) criticism might be in order. Not only have the establishment galleries and critics accepted what they once dismissed, a few of the artists have gone all-out commercial: Geoff McFetridge has been working for Pepsi, Nike and seemingly most major corporations around today. But others, like Korine, have resisted “going Hollywood.”
Though most of the artists on view have achieved some sort of success, the saddest part of Beautiful Losers is learning that one (Margaret Kilgallen, the only woman given as much coverage as the men) died in 2001, of complications from cancer. The impact on the others is profound, but fortunately the directors do not exploit this point. At the same time, the film avoids becoming too dark about the “losers” side of the stories when a bit more about the failed artists would have been welcome. Finally, Rose and Leonard might have broadened their cinematic canvas to consider earlier art movements, including the political art of the Lower East Side of the 1980s.
Those who were there will surely want to see Beautiful Losers. Others interested in contemporary art will also get something out of this pleasing though less-than-profound homage.