Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures review - Life through a distorted lens

Despite some moving contributions from family members and friends, this documentary on the famed photographer never really gets anywhere near its subject

Catholic boy: Robert Mapplethorpe

Film Title: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Director: Fenton Bailey , Randy Barbato

Starring: Debbie Harry, Fran Lebowitz, Brooke Shields

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 108 min

Thu, Apr 21, 2016, 15:15


Quick recap: Robert Mapplethorpe was a nice Catholic boy who grew up with five brothers and sisters in Queens, NYC. During the late 1960s, he relocated to Brooklyn to study fine arts at the Pratt Institute. He dropped out before graduation and moved into the Chelsea Hotel with Patti Smith.

The couple stayed together for five years, even after she realised he was gay. Mapplethorpe’s early collage creations nudged him increasingly toward photography. By the 1980s, his statuesque nudes and delicate flower portraits had won acclaim and admirers. But, in common with many good Catholic boys before and since, his best-known work – pictures of bondage and lesser-spotted sex acts – would invert the Catholic imagery he grew up with.

Several commentators make that particular connection in this documentary portrait from the makers of Inside Deep Throat. It is alas, as insightful as Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures gets. Despite some moving contributions from family members, particularly Mapplethorpe’s younger brother Edward, the film never really gets anywhere near its subject.

The usual New York suspects – always a pleasure, Dame Debbie Harry – are duly trotted out. Curators of an upcoming exhibition pour over Mapplethorpe’s images and pronounce judgments in galleryese. Archival interviews with the artist, who died due to complications from HIV/Aids in 1989, are not particularly revealing.

Is this shallow depiction a barbed commentary on the man’s work and life? If so: mission accomplished. Look at the Pictures struggles to accommodate a glut of materials, yet fails to accord meaning or significance. The huge Patti Smith-sized hole is the production – her voice is heard in archival footage but she doesn’t supply direct testimony – is even more detrimental than one might suppose. We are left, as the title suggests, to mull over Mapplethorpe’s work alone. Fair enough: but we didn’t need a movie for that.