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Movie Review

Rebels on the rise

Thomas Campbell in ''Beautiful Losers.'' Thomas Campbell in ''Beautiful Losers.'' (Sidetrack Films)
By Michael Hardy
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2008
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Ostensibly, "Beautiful Losers" is a documentary about the eponymous band of graphic artists and filmmakers whose work was showcased in a mega-exhibition of the same name that traveled the world from 2004 to 2007, drawing crowds from Baltimore to Tokyo. Mostly self-taught, the artists coalesced in New York in the mid-'90s, brought together by their love of skateboarding, graffiti, and punk rock, and united in their adherence to an ethos of unembarrassed self-expression. Or, as one artist in the film puts it with characteristic inelegance, "the joy of creation and stuff."

I say the documentary is ostensibly about the Beautiful Losers because that particular group and exhibit were merely one appendage of an artistic movement that's been gathering steam for the past 30 years and has now, as the film demonstrates, achieved genuine cultural hegemony. This movement - you can call it D.I.Y., indie, underground, punk, alternative, or, less charitably, hipster - is the true subject of directors Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard, and "Beautiful Losers" is the movement's cinematic manifesto.

In case you doubt the movement's importance, here's a brief D.I.Y. Hall of Fame. In music, the Clash, the Pixies, Nirvana, and Beck; in literature, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, and the late David Foster Wallace; in art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, R. Crumb, and Jeff Koons; in film, Lars von Trier, Vincent Gallo, Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson.

Born in angry reaction to the cultural homogenization of the Thatcher-Reagan '80s, the D.I.Y.ers shared a philosophy of anti-authoritarianism, self-reliance, and emotional authenticity. They channeled their fury toward corporations, schools, record labels, the government, and any other institution that happened to get between them and a good time. So what happens when the underground goes mainstream? That's the dilemma facing the latter-day-D.I.Y.ers of "Beautiful Losers."

For a film about a gaggle of slackers, "Beautiful Losers" is remarkably polished; with its quicksilver editing and fastidious mise-en-scene, it's as tight as the artists are slack. Rose and Leonard are smart enough to leave the idiosyncrasies to their subjects, who are happy to oblige.

Many of the artists now have contracts with established New York galleries. Their shows get reviewed in The New York Times. They design advertisements for Pepsi, Volkswagen, and The Gap. One of the artists, graphic designer Mike Mills, even films his interviews wearing a suit and tie.

The rebels who once flouted the system are now, for better or worse, running the system. They make our television shows, movies, and music. They write our novels. They design our clothing and our websites. If you want to understand what they're all about - where they came from, what they believe in, and how they're handling success - there's no better place to start than "Beautiful Losers," one of the year's best documentaries.

Beautiful Losers

Directed by: Aaron Rose and

Joshua Leonard

Starring: Jo Jackson, Chris Johanson, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills,

Bary McGee

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 90 minutes

Unrated

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