Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ondi Timoner goes head on (so to speak) with the story of Robert Mapplethorpe, the immensely talented and endlessly controversial photographer whose work in the 70’s and 80’s was often considered scandalous, if not pornographic. Ms. Timoner and star Matt Smith (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) are unflinching in this look at the artist, his personal life, and his work … although I personally flinched a few times.
The opening scene is quite unusual as Mapplethorpe is shown alone in his small dorm room, attired in full Pratt Institute uniform, just prior to dropping out. We next see his NYC meet with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), and watch the two oddball youngsters connect. Their relationship develops as Robert shifts from drawing to photography, stating, “I’m an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented”. The couple wriggles their way into the Chelsea Hotel and soon Mapplethorpe is focused on male nudes not just as artistic models, but also as personal pleasure. His interests send Patti Smith packing … and understandably so.
Mapplethorpe’s career takes off when Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) becomes his benefactor and lover. Sam’s connections in the art world lead to gallery shows and work that Robert might never have attained. The film never shies away from Mapplethorpe’s daddy issues, his promiscuity, his drug use, or his intolerance of those who didn’t “get” his work. His fascination with male genitalia in both art and personal life is on full display, as many of his actual photographs are shown throughout.
Once diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, his sexual irresponsibility probably should have been emphasized, but other than that, filmmaker Timoner never tries to sugar coat the man. He seemed to crave attention, yet so many wanted love from him – Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, his father (Mark Moses, “Mad Men”), and his brother (who worked with him), all tried to establish that bond, but things just never quite clicked.
Other fine supporting work is provided by Hari Nef, Mickey O’Hagan (TANGERINE), Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Brandon Sklenar. Mapplethorpe’s story would likely be best handled via documentary, but Mr. Smith’s performance is worthy of attention. The film does a nice job of relaying the two sides to Mapplethorpe’s work – the provocative and the portraits. He took some iconic photos of celebrities including the cover of Patti Smith’s debut album “Horses”.
Ms. Smith’s 2010 memoir “Just Kids” paints a more complete picture of their relationship, and it’s interesting to note that although he died in 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work continues to generate emotional responses. In fact, his work inspired a national debate about whether the government should fund the arts. Ms. Timoner’s film has been well received at LGBTQ festivals, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is devoted to protecting and promoting his work, while raising millions of dollars for AIDS research. His legacy is much more than some black and white photographs of nude models.
watch the trailer: