'Meow Wolf: Origin Story': Film Review

Rapid-fire visuals adorn an intriguing fringe-culture success story.

Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps introduce the band of Santa Fe misfits whose art got a helping hand from George R.R. Martin.

What happens when a bunch of no-rules art punks hit the jackpot with their work? Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller recount the birth and surprising success of a Santa Fe art collective in Meow Wolf: Origin Story, a doc nearly as image-stuffed as the eponymous group's crowd-pleasing installations. A burst of eye candy chased with some intriguing fringe-culture sociology, it will draw the group's fans to special theatrical bookings, but should find most of its audience on streaming services.

Most readers outside New Mexico who know the group will have discovered them after Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin (a Santa Fe resident) helped finance their most ambitious creation. But that's later to come in this story, which begins with an amorphous group of artsy, alienated kids. Famous for its gallery scene, Santa Fe can be snooty about who gets to enter the art world. Or, as Meow Wolf member Caity Kennedy puts it, it's "a bunch of markety bullshit."

In search of outlets and support for their own work, a gaggle of aspiring artists came together in the kind of inchoate collective found much more often in music scenes. They slept and partied in places they could live together cheaply (a four-house "Quadroplex"); 10 of them started chipping in $100 a month to rent a 900 square-foot warehouse space. In what sounds like an ill-considered process, they drew name ideas from a hat and settled on a moniker nobody seems to have liked or understood. But it stuck, and now founding members like Benji Geary talk of Meow Wolf half-seriously as if it were a real spirit animal for the group, lurking someplace in the internet or another dimension.

The film offers plentiful footage of early art happenings, cosplay and general hijinks seemingly designed to alienate older careerists and squares in Santa Fe. Meanwhile the Wolfers recount their early shows: Group members would paint every inch of surface in their shared space, then build sculptures that emerged from the paintings; others would dumpster dive to find shiny or colorful things to use in chaotic, room-sized assemblages. Maximalism was the rule. But if psychedelic drugs played a part, as anyone who's walked into a Meow Wolf show should suspect, the film is curiously silent about it.

In their early months, the friends embraced "radical inclusivity": Anybody who wanted to could join in, meaning they attracted plenty of difficult personalities. The film does a good job of showing how stresses emerged when some participants tried to fill a leadership void, herding cats in an attempt to pay for art materials and keep from burning the place down. Eventual CEO Vince Kadlubek rubbed people the wrong way by trying to run meetings and introduce business concepts to MW operations; he quit for a while, but came back at the urging of David Loughridge, another artist with an unusually solid work ethic. (As one interviewee recalls, "he had all the tools, and they were organized.") As Meow Wolf shows grew more elaborate, detail-oriented participants became essential.

Origin Story shows enough behind-the-scenes material from the group's first forays into actual gallery-world settings to prepare us for the biggie: After asking for and getting financial help from Martin, the group took over a 33,000 square-foot bowling alley and built it into something akin to an art-damaged Disneyland without rides. House of Eternal Return would prove stupendously popular with both freaks and families, requiring Meow Wolfers to start behaving like a big corporation. Interviews find them struggling with this idea, worrying about becoming The Man after building their identity on bucking the system.

As Kadlubek discusses ambitious expansion plans and tosses out icky corp-talk about the production of "aesthetic material," viewers may want to urge Meow Wolf's founders to stop while they're ahead: Those who talk loudest about keeping things weird are often the biggest sellouts; businesses who promise they won't be evil sometimes turn into history's worst Peeping Toms. Origin Story maintains an upbeat vibe as its heroes push forth into the larger world; here's hoping they show lots of people a good time before their world-domination strategy sucks the life out of them.

Production company: Meow Wolf Entertainment
Directors: Morgan Capps, Jilann Spitzmiller
Screenwriters: Morgan Capps, Christina Procter, Jilann Spitzmiller
Producer: Alexandra Renzo
Executive producers: Nicolas Gonda, Tristan Love, George R.R. Martin
Editor: Alessandra Dobrin Khalsa
Composer: Ben Wright

88 minutes