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MOVIE REVIEW

Died Young, Stayed Pretty

Poster artists share their craft, not their ideas. Nor are they challenged to

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 31, 2009

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By the second tangent on Elvis Presley conspiracy theories, it’s apparent that Eileen Yaghoobian has almost no control over “Died Young, Stayed Pretty.’’ Ostensibly, her documentary is about the demise of rock-concert poster art. But few of the artists have anything enlightening to say about their craft, which reached its outlaw apex not long after the arrival of the cover for the Sex Pistols’ 1977 album, “Never Mind the Bollocks.’’

Some of these men (and they’re mostly men) present a decent case for how the best rock posters transcend their benign promotional function. It barely matters who the musician is. The provocative nature of the posters gives them permanence. Often these prints can arrest you with their inflammatory boldness or the beauty of their imagery.

But “Died Young, Stayed Pretty,’’ whose title paraphrases a Blondie song and sums up the art form’s history, put me in a sour mood. The men Yaghoobian finds, in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Chapel Hill, N.C., Seattle, and Portland, Ore., don’t seem to care about anything. One exception is Brian Chippendale, a soft-spoken Providence artist and musician who blends abstraction, sexual perversion, and darkness in a way that evokes Henry Darger. But for every Chippendale there’s an Art Chantry, whose jaded views on his craft, its history, and his own work undermine what a dynamic and inspired designer he is. (A poster he made for the Portland band Dead Moon overlays the Lumière brothers’ famous film image of a space capsule jammed in the moon’s eye atop a vinyl record.) Repeatedly, the film turns to him, presumably because his jolly negativity sounds authoritative.

Poster art has survived all these decades on a troublemaker’s impulse to, as one guy puts it, destroy other art. That’s fine, but such a provocative sentiment feels like an ideological affectation, not a committed artistic stance. (If ever there was a movie made for South by Southwest, the American culture festival ruled by righteous cool, this is it.)

To experience this work on its own terms is one thing. Encountered at a construction site, say, you’re allowed to reckon with its sense of disturbance, its determination to criticize mainstream culture, its obsession, in many cases, with pornography. And in that reckoning, you’re free to decry the unimaginative sexuality, or admire the artist’s disgust over corporatization - and then remove the poster from its spot and mount it somewhere in your home. Either way, ideally, the conversation is between you and the poster.

Yaghoobian doesn’t seem to realize that the art makes a much better case for itself than the people who’ve created it. With a few exceptions, I had no idea what these guys were talking about. Poster art is “the purest form of art our culture has,’’ one artist says. Really? Another swears that we all just want to be Clint Eastwood. It’s unclear what we’re to glean from the artist who tells Yaghoobian that for so long his dream was to be a terrorist. You know, before 9/11 when terrorism was cool. He probably means that in a guerrilla sort of way, but he’s not articulate enough for anyone to know for sure.

I’m no fan of academic documentaries, but Yaghoobian’s instinct is to gush. Surely there is a scholar who could give the film some contextual depth or a designer who could convey how what he does is personally urgent. How do the musicians feel about the dissonance between what they do and how these designers have subverted or circumnavigated it? But what’s crucially missing from this movie is the powerful nature of this underappreciated art form. When you confront some of these posters they confront you right back.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

DIED YOUNG, STAYED PRETTY Directed by: Eileen Yaghoobian

At: The Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 99 minutes

Unrated

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