Stars of a far more compelling and truthful bohemian rhapsody than, say, those in "Rent," the artists, musicians, and filmmakers who populate Aaron Rose's new documentary "Beautiful Losers" marked a generational shift in what could be loosely termed visual culture. Some of them, such as Mike Mills, grew up to be novel independent filmmakers ("Thumbsucker") who would make a ton of unusual rock videos and now-iconographic Beastie Boys album covers. Others, such as Stephen "ESPO" Powers, committed themselves to public art, such as hand-painting every single roller coaster car on the Coney Island Cyclone.
And while not all of the 13 artists featured in Mr. Rose's spirited film achieved the crash-and-burn notoriety of the filmmaker Harmony Korine ("Gummo"), they all shared a do-it-yourself ethic that reflected the same influence that punk ideals had on other aspects of 1990s culture, from indie rock and hip-hop to the rise of street-oriented sports such as skateboarding. Misfits they may have been, but as they came to coalesce around the Alleged Gallery — a thrown-together art space on a then-desolate Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side — they reinvented American design with a fresh, vernacular whammy.
"The common thread was that they knew me," Mr. Rose, the onetime owner of Alleged Gallery, said. The director, now based in Los Angeles, always had a video camera handy at the gallery he opened in 1992. Thanks to a job producing promotional spots at MTV, he could also wrangle small film crews. But when he first decided to document the eclectic school of artists who found a community through Alleged, the filmmaker never intended to turn the camera on himself. "It was a bitter pill to swallow," Mr. Rose, who spent five years working on the documentary, said. "The film wasn't supposed to be the way it is now."
Nonetheless, Mr. Rose, who co-directed with Joshua Leonard, conceded his central role in the story, which painstakingly synthesizes the life, work, and the often verbose commentary of the artists into a coherent, if sometimes frustratingly collage-like, 90 minutes.
"Nobody was thinking about the future," Mr. Rose recalled. "It still blows my mind."
Though Ludlow Street is now the epicenter of a sprawling club scene, its only beacon in the early 1990s was the bar Max Fish. Mr. Rose took over the space across the street and dubbed it the Alleged Gallery. The name was accurate: The place barely functioned as any sort of commercial enterprise. The hours were 6 p.m. to midnight, and for the next few years it became a kind of a clubhouse.
"For sure, it was family-oriented," one of the Alleged artists, Thomas Campbell, said. "Aaron was the catalyst for bringing all that together."
"Beautiful Losers," which makes its premiere at IFC Center on Friday, works best as a fast-paced survey, briefly touching on the underpinnings of various individuals' work. Mr. Mills holds forth about suburban angst and the embarrassment of having parents who were so supportive they insisted on attending gigs by his punk band. Mr. Korine, interviewed at a Nashville playground, delivers a weird aside about a beheading, and is seen in an old MTV clip (shot by Mr. Rose) pretending to be a homeless banjo player on the streets of Manhattan. And there is archival footage of the artist Margaret Kilgallen, who practiced the lost art of railroad-car graffiti and applied the influence of naïve commercial art in the Mission District of San Francisco to her own hand-drawn pieces. The film serves as a remembrance of Kilgallen, who died of cancer in 2001, having chosen to forgo treatment in order to save her unborn daughter.
If much is made of the romantic and impoverished nature of 20-something artists scrounging their way toward inspiration and infamy, it's also not as though they existed in a total vacuum. The gallery proved to be in the right place at the right time, and it wasn't long before many of its artists were finding employment with producers of skateboard equipment, sneakers, rock albums, concert tours, and music videos. Watching one of the film's montages, which are stuffed with images that will be instantly familiar to any pop consumer of the mid-1990s, is to see how immediately supposed iconoclasm can serve as advertising. Some of the artists, such as Mr. Mills, seem to take the subversive stance of creating highly original work from within commercial genres. Others, such as the agitprop poster artist Shepard Fairey, spun off clothing lines from their Orwellian street art.
"I wanted to tell a personal story and pepper it with history, rather than tell a historical story and pepper it with something personal," Mr. Rose said. "The film is not so much about the art as it is about the people."