Arriving amid the current trend of documentaries about the bold-faced names of fashion, and following on America’s continued fascination with Mad Men and the resurgence of interest in Marilyn Monroe circa the 50th anniversary of her death, Bert Stern: Original Madman seems from the outset like an intentional grab at the zeitgeist. Renowned as a genius photographer, a Madison Avenue innovator, and the artist behind Monroe’s legendary “last sitting,” Bert Stern as a documentary subject is obvious catnip to a savvy producer.
No doubt there’s an interesting and appealing film to be made about the man, but Bert Stern: Original Madman mostly fails to be that. The doc is in part a history of Stern’s unlikely rise to fame from blue-collar Brooklyn boy to art-world hero, and his subsequent fall from grace, due to his philandering and substance abuse. It’s also part pseudo-diary about the relationship between Stern and the film’s director, Shannah Laumeister: He photographed her as teenager and their relationship has since become more personal than professional.
The sections of the film focused on Stern’s history and work are intriguing as insight into America’s mid-century pop culture and as an abridged meander through his vast portfolio. The time devoted specifically to his entry into the industry, his work with a young Stanley Kubrick, and the process behind his initial campaigns for Smirnoff, gives interesting background to the images he produced. But Stern himself is a relatively unappealing presence, lacking vitality or charisma in front of the camera, and the time he devotes to nostalgic musings over the various female stars he photographed is unpleasant, which only makes the parts of the film focused on his very personal relationship with Laumeister all the more awkward.
Despite portraying the life and work of a man whose rise to fame was predicated on his uncanny ability to distill an entire marketing campaign into a single iconic, innovative image, the film itself is generally jumbled, indulgent, and aesthetically unappealing. This comes into focus most readily when the film excerpts Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Stern’s own documentary film from 1960, the careful, colorful compositions and rhythmic editing of which make a big impression even in short snippets and serve to underscore this doc’s shortcomings. Which isn’t to suggest that the documentarian must be the aesthetic equal of her subject, but Original Madman fails to capture the vibrancy or spirit of Stern’s work. It all seems rote, rushed, and utterly uninterested in Stern’s power as an innovator of image, making it effectively the opposite of the output of the artist it attempts to document.