2 out of 4 stars
Showing up on the arts scene right on the cusp between the free love 1960s and the hedonistic, anything- goes 1970s, New York native Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) filled a void nobody — even he — knew existed. Having grown up in a strict Catholic household and by all accounts a shy introvert, Mapplethorpe attended the prestigious Pratt Institute and would have likely gone on to a career as a graphic artist had he not crossed paths with poet and future punk rocker Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon, who played Susan Atkins opposite Matt Smith as Charles Manson in last year’s “Charlie Says”).
Portrayed as kindred spirits in much the same way as Freddie Mercury and Mary Austin in “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which took place at about the same time), Smith would become the non-sexual muse to another creative type who was in deep denial regarding his own budding homosexuality. So self-loathing was Mapplethorpe at one point he told Smith that if she left him he’d “become gay.” The only person he was fooling was himself, and from that point on, Mapplethorpe was on his way to becoming one of the most controversial photographers in history.
The first live-action production from documentarian Ondi Timoner (“Brand: A Second Coming,” “Dig”), “Mapplethorpe” has a distinct “this-happened-then-that-happened” successive course of events that are never allowed to ruminate or breathe. It’s as if Timoner and co-writer Mikko Alanne are on a narrative pathway that must be completed in 90 or so minutes and being thorough or thoughtful become narrative obstacles. Don’t linger too long or you’ll lose the audience.
While there might be some artists and younger members of the LGBTQ community who have never heard of Mapplethorpe and will be out on an exploratory mission, most people seeing the film are already aware of him and want to see something different or maybe a unique slant on what they know. Sadly, they won’t get it. This is a greatest hits mixtape that avoids the deeper, rougher, lesser-known album cuts or, to make an even more arcane reference, it’s: Robert Mapplethorpe — this is your life.
This touching of bases results in a confused and tentative tale of an artist reaching a creative tipping point and then almost immediately transforming into a self-absorbed prima donna. There’s no arc; it’s just point A to point Z, and the big fallout is the perception that Smith is not doing his job. Looking nothing like the man he’s playing (unless you count haircuts), Smith is charged with playing a tentative neophyte and then a self-destructive monster hellbent on taking out others along the way.
Once he’d made it big, Mapplethorpe made up for lost time by indulging himself in every conceivable carnal desire, yet little of that shows up here. He goes from a pan/asexual situation with Smith to a non-committal long-term relationship with art dealer Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) to AIDS victim in a wheelchair about to die.
In Timoner’s defense, she faced a lose-lose scenario right out of the gate. If she chose to include any images of Mapplethorpe’s more daring and explicit photography, she probably couldn’t have gotten the movie made. Forget R or even the more vague and open-ended NR. The movie would have been NC-17 and all but impossible to advertise or market.
Instead of avoiding the lurid and seedy, Timoner could have gone the route of comparing the more commercial celebrity work of Mapplethorpe to that of fellow black and white pioneers Richard Avedon and Ansel Adams. When not getting up close and personal with explicit nudes (including some with underage models), Mapplethorpe took iconic portraits of celebrities including Deborah Harry, Andy Warhol, Donald Sutherland, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Iggy Pop, Sigourney Weaver, Brooke Shields and Isabella Rossellini, just to name a few.
Although she did nothing to stop the making of this film, Patti Smith also chose not to support it without explanation, which speaks volumes and even moreso considering her book about her life with Mapplethorpe (“Just Kids”) won the 2010 National Book Award for non-fiction. Although established fans already know of it, they and any interested newcomers to the Mapplethorpe story should skip this film entirely and instead check the far superior 2016 documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.” It tells you everything you’ll need to know in 80 minutes and will more than likely pin your ears back in a way this film wants to but can’t.