HBO’s Mapplethorpe Doc Has Little of the Power of the Art Itself


The imperative in the title of this occasionally revealing doc comes from cracker senator Jesse Helms, jowls wagging during his 1989 denunciation of the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS at 42 a few months earlier.

Helms’s censure was a pivotal moment in the culture wars but here passes as a blip in this cradle-to-grave retelling of the artist’s life; each chapter of Mapplethorpe’s biography — his Catholic boyhood in Queens, his renowned romances with Patti Smith and the collector Sam Wagstaff, his devotion to and aestheticizing of s/m — is given the same cursory treatment.

Unwisely, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (veteran LGBT chroniclers and rehabilitators of the disgraced) intersperse their dutiful recounting with shots of curators from the Getty and LACMA, co-hosts of a new Mapplethorpe retrospective, examining and discussing the photographer’s work — inert sequences that feature dull remarks like “Ah, biker jacket from the back.”

But this mostly pedestrian project does boast several captivating interviewees: The always pungent Fran Lebowitz says the ferociously ambitious artist “looked like a ruined Cupid.” Those who were lovers, models, and muses — often all at once, and often quickly abandoned — to Mapplethorpe still seem to be under his spell, a dark erotic allure so flawlessly distilled in his work.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
HBO Documentary Films
Opens April 8, Cinema Village