Robert Mapplethorpe’s story is one that’s best told as a documentary as the narrative feature, Mapplethorpe, does not do him justice.
It’s unfortunate because Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) was such an iconic photographer. Nearly 30 years following his death from AIDS in 1989, his photos are still a big part of cultural history. The film starts just before Mapplethorpe moves into the Hotel Chelsea in the late 1960s, where he’s living with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and follows his career until his death at the age of 42. Interestingly enough, the film premiered in April 2018 at the SVA Theater just down the street from the hotel.
Not only does he get his photography portfolio up and running during this time, he stops repressing and accepts his attraction to men. These relationships are troubled from the get go because he wants to be more than a photographer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s curator Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), model Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III), or anyone else.
This guy was a photographer who pushed the limits and took photos of those involved with BDSM when nobody else would. The film could have done a better job at exploring just what made him tick and why he wasn’t easy to work with at times.
Matt Smith and Marianne Rendón do their best to save the film but there’s only so much one can do. There’s enough of a connection between the two actors that you’d rather the film focus on them. The former Doctor Who star looks the part of the iconic photographer. Unfortunately, Rendón’s Patti Smith is only featured in the film for a short while. There’s a compelling story that can surely be told but the root of the film’s struggles can be traced back to the script written by Ondi Timoner and Mikko Alanne. The script basically sticks to conventional biopic standards rather than changing the status quo.
It was only a few years ago when Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premiered at Sundance prior to airing on HBO. Documentaries have a way of telling a powerful story that narrative features just can’t do sometimes. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other but Mapplethorpe just falls so flat. Coincidentally, this film was announced just after the documentary held its world premiere.
Some people’s lives make for better documentaries than biopics. Mapplethorpe’s story is one that works best as a documentary.
DIRECTOR: Ondi Timoner
SCREENWRITER: Ondi Timoner & Mikko Alanne
CAST: Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, McKinley Belcher III, Mark Moses
An official selection of the Frameline42: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, Mapplethorpe screens in the Showcase program on June 2, 2018. Mapplethorpe premiered during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in the U.S. Narrative Competition.