Beautiful Losers assumes a familiarity with the subject that neglects the uninitiated. Watching it does not inspire the unmitigated terror that an in-law’s home movie would. But the film does leave the less savvy viewer like me with a feeling of being on the outside looking in. The losers in questions are a charismatic bunch; it’s a shame we don’t get to know them better. Part of the problem might be that while the artists did share a gallery, they did not cohere around a particular genre. Inspirations ran the gamut from skate culture to advertising to graffiti to comic books to punk rock. The documentary teaches you a little about all of these muses, but would be stronger if it taught you everything about one. Of course, a more myopic background would give many of the Alleged artists short thrift.
Another solution to the film’s scattershot feel would have been a closer examination of the gallery itself. Participants attest to the cult-like loyalty that Alleged inspired in its artists and audiences: painters slept beneath their portraits rather than in hotels; exhibitions and their showcased artists shuttled between New York. Los Angeles and Tokyo and Rose ran the space for years despite the enormous financial burden it imposed. But just as it falls short of illuminating the art itself, Beautiful Losers struggles to put the gallery in its context. I had hoped to hear more about the pre-gentrified Lower East Side- what attracted a pioneer like Rose to this frontier and how the bohemian charge that Alleged sparked paved the way for the stiletto-choked nightlife destination the LES has become.
Glossing over the Disneyfication of the neighborhood is one thing; giving a free pass to the artists regarding their own commercial embrace is a larger failure. Alleged alumni quickly graduated from the scruffy gallery scene to Pepsi and Apple contracts. And while their advertisements might have gone against the grain aesthetically, they still fattened the pockets of those grey flannel suits. The co-opting of such an anti-establishment crew deserved a more thorough if not critical analysis.
Beautiful Losers is like a reunion between exceptionally quirky and talented college friends. It is a pleasant and endearing celebration. But it only touches the surface, offering a perfunctory crash course on a formative time and place while looking past the occasional bald patch or spare tire.