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Review: Fast-paced doc ‘The Incomparable Rose Hartman’ glosses over photographer’s complexity

A photo by Rose Hartman of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse inside Studio 54 on her birthday in 1977, from the documentary "The Incomparable Rose Hartman."
(Rose Hartman / Massive Original)

When Bianca Jagger rode a white horse at Studio 54 in the ’70s, more than a handful of people took photographs. Rose Hartman’s celebrated shot, however, made Jagger look like something timeless and inevitable, private and magical. A goddess on a unicorn would have had trouble matching what Hartman captured.

But Otis Mass’ fast-paced documentary about this erstwhile, party-crashing camerawoman (and friend), “The Incomparable Rose Hartman,” doesn’t work nearly as hard to nail down its subject as Hartman herself would, even now at 80, to gain entree into a celeb-stuffed, fashionable shindig. Mass commits the lazy doc sin of over-interviewing — dozens of talking heads fly by in just the first few minutes — which blurs the portrait in a soup of repeated comments as you try to assess who knew her and who’s just pontificating.

What emerges is less a plea for recognizing this abrasive go-getter as a singular chronicler of New York’s social scene than a catty catalog of desperate-for-attention traits. Mass loves (a bit too much) their between-takes spats and moments at art functions when Hartman chastises partygoers for not looking at her work, all of which feel petty instead of revealing.

The movie is most interesting when addressing how important belonging in the world she covers is to Hartman as her recording it, and there’s obviously a hard-bitten, self-obsessed personality to explore, but it’s lost in the surface-skim technique.

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‘The Incomparable Rose Hartman’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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