The 1960s and 70s was a period of experimentation and freedom that the world had never seen or experienced before. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Easy Rider (1969) exploded onto the big-screen, depicting a world of sex, drugs and violence that audiences had never seen before. Social justice came in the form of The Women’s liberation movement and the Black Panthers. People openly protested the Vietnam war, and campaigned for civil rights while rejecting social norms that were trying to be forced upon them. It was also a period that saw the very definitions of what was considered ‘art’ be redefined. One of those people to redefine ‘art’ was the notorious photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who brought the controversial world of BDSM subculture to the walls of prestigious art galleries and helped to blur the lines of what some considered pornography and eroticism. 

Mapplethorpe is the subject of Ondi Timoner’s latest film, aptly titled Mapplethorpe. This is very much Timoner’s loving eulogy to the artist and charts his rise to fame in the 60s and his heyday in the 70s, and eventually his untimely death in 1989 due to complications with HIV/AIDs. Timoner has managed to capture what made Mapplethorpe such a unique individual which could have only thrived during this period and she also manages to depict a brutally honest portrayal of what it means to become famous, and also find oneself with the eyes of the world examining your every action. 

As Timoner has discussed in interviews, she “wanted to make [it] a coming of age story too and an anthem for artists. His eye and his drive and his exploration, which is how you make great art, you really have to dig into yourself and figure out where all these human instincts are coming from and make it relatable as well.” Mapplethorpe certainly hits the narrative beats of a coming-of-age drama, but this is a coming-of-age story fully grounded in reality and depicts a flawed individual who isn’t exactly likeable at times, but is always entertaining to watch. 

When we first meet Mapplethorppe (played by an exquisite Matt Smith), he is a young cadet who runs away from is clean cut middle class background and his overbearing parents (Mark Moses and Carolyn McCormick) in order to live in New York he dreams of making it as an artist. It is by chance that he meets Patti Smith (yes, that Patti Smith, who is played by a wonderfully sweet Marianne Rendón), the two of them seem to be a perfect match. However, Mapplethorppe has other passions aside from art…he is attracted to members of the same sex and drawn to photographing nude males in very graphic detail. His photographs begin to gain attraction in the art world but he faces restrictions along the way in the forms of uptight, gatekeepers who struggle to mask their distaste. 

Mapplethorpe’s career takes off when Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) becomes his benefactor and lover. Sam asks him whether he is scared of dying, in which Robert replies back smoothly with “only before I am famous.” Of course, Mapplethorpe becomes famous, thanks in some part to Sam’s connections in the art world. However, as Mapplethroppe’s fame grows, so does his appetite for sex and drugs. His ego also grows to the extent that he pushes away everyone who loves him including his younger brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) who idolizes him so much that he also becomes a photographer.

What is most refreshing about this biopic, is the fact that Timoner doesn’t give us a watered down version of Mapplethorppe’s life. She presents us with the subject matter in revealing detail, very much like Mapplethroppe’s photographs. This is a bold, in-your-face film which will in turn shock the viewer and also fascinate them at the same time. Apparently, James Franco was set to star as Mapplethroppe but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Matt Smith in this role. 

Smith delivers a career best performance, becoming lost with the character and giving us a near perfect American accent. As the film unfolds, Smith’s Mapplethorpe sheds his vulnerability and timid nature to become this hardened, isolated, tortured genius that we admire but don’t necessarily like. There are many layers to Robert Mapplethorpe and Smith and Timoner do their best to peel the layers back to try and capture this truly unique individual.  

The level of attention to detail in recreating New York throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, is worth mentioning along with Nancy Schreiber’s stunning cinematography and editing from John David Allen and Lee Percy which blends together super 8 footage and still photography. The decision to shoot on film and the use of natural lighting, helps to give a more authentic look to the film. We feel like we have been invited to witness something that the world has never seen before, and coupled with the subject matter, this film feels very personal. 

The film’s pacing issues are slightly bothersome, especially the last decade of Mapplethorpe’s life being covered too quickly, but this is a common issue in many biopics. Unlike other biopics, the director and fellow writer Mikko Alanne don’t shy away from depicting the facts of Robert Mapplethrope’s very controversial life. He was a bigger-than-life character, and any film would struggle to capture this, but it’s clear that Timoner’s film is a tribute to this man. And, if you’re still not convinced, then Mapplethorpe is worth seeking out for Matt Smith’s performance alone

My Rating: ★★★★½

Signature Entertainment presents Mapplethorpe on Digital HD 23rd September

Directed by: Ondi Timoner
Written by: Ondi Timoner, Mikko Alanne, Bruce Goodrich
Cast: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brand Sklenar

“Matt Smith stars in this shocking biopic chronicling the journey of the infamous ‘bad boy’ photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. Following him as an artist growing up in 1950’s Queens, New York, as he relentlessly pursued a career in fine art, gaining recognition as one of the world’s most important photographers of our time until his untimely death in 1989.”

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