Mapplethorpe suffers from Bohemian Rhapsody-itis: Iconic subject, powerful leading performance, but weighed down by a Wikipedia-entry vehicle that seeks to show everything, and as a result, speeds past the moments that would give it real emotional depth.
That’s not to say it’s boring — just like Freddie Mercury, provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life offers more than enough high drama, salacious details and pathos to keep anyone riveted. Plus, director Ondi Timoner isn’t afraid to go there — there are almost too many full-frontal shots to count, displayed with a kind of gleeful zest that we have the late Mapplethorpe to thank for. Still, that shock value is offset by the overwhelmingly tame format.
Timoner lays out the plot as Mapplethorpe 101 — this is a linear biopic, which starts with some home footage and photos of the photographer’s working class Catholic childhood in Queens. But the real action begins in 1969, when a young Robert (The Crown’s Matt Smith), clad in military regalia and a student at New York’s Pratt Institute, decides that army life isn’t for him. We see him meet a young Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), with whom he would have a life-long and deeply loving relationship (if you haven’t read Just Kids, her memoir about their time together, I cannot recommend it enough). Cut to them moving into the infamous Chelsea Hotel where, a mere few years later, The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious would be arrested on suspicion that he murdered his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
The rest unfolds in similarly quick beats. Mapplethorpe receives his first camera (courtesy of artist Sandy Daley, played by Tina Benko), photographs his first penis, discovers his own sexuality as a gay man, breaks down the rigid doors of the art world with the help of lover and art world bigwig Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) and slowly wastes away due to complications from HIV-AIDS, as the crisis reaches its apex in the late ‘80s.
And if this is all sounding a bit like ticking off boxes on biography bingo, well, that’s the problem. You catch a glimpse of some fascinating nuggets here and there (his relationship with Patti, for example, which the film rushes past, or even his initial burst of fame, which we hear about in the aftermath), but blink, and the action will have shifted forward a few years, with news footage serving as lazy exposition.
So, here’s my rant about biopics centered around creative figures. It’s tempting to give us the highlight reel — they do the most! But wouldn’t it be so much more compelling to choose one period in that person’s life — either an especially fruitful time, or even better, a drought that forces them to reexamine their work and what it means — and go deep? We watch biopics to learn something more about who [insert famous person] was, a character study of someone we already probably know a lot about. Otherwise, a quick Google would be just as effective.
It would be unfair to say that Mapplethorpe has nothing new to offer, however. The film certainly includes winks for long-time fans. Some of Mapplethorpe’s most famous work features prominently, but Timoner goes a step further in trying to put faces to the genitalia. Most notably, we’re introduced to Milton Moore (McKinley Belcher III) whose dapper appearance became the inspiration for “Man In Polyester Suit,” which sold for $478,000 in 2015. Mapplethorpe’s obsession with his physique is the perfect opening for an examination of what has been a much-criticized aspect of his oeuvre: the objectification of Black bodies. In this fictionalized version at least, Mapplethorpe and Moore’s relationship culminates in a fierce confrontation about the former’s racial bias.
What keeps the momentum going is Smith’s magnetic performance, which has the power to suck almost all of the stale biopic air out of the room. He owns Mapplethorpe’s larger-than-life persona, delivering lines like “I would’ve been a painter, but the camera was invented,” with the zeal of someone who really believes in himself as a once-in-a-lifetime artist. (In this case, he really was that good.)
To their credit, Timoner and Smith aren’t afraid of making the protagonist appear unlikeable. In fact, it almost seems like a mission. The film depicts Mapplethorpe — at least, at the height of his fame — as a narcissist with a gluttonous need for the spotlight, and a callous indifference to the concerns, or indeed the lives of others. His initial response to his AIDS diagnosis is to engage in casual unsafe sex as usual, even as his younger brother warns him that he might be condemning others to death. Still, this attitude is hard to reconcile with the ethereal boy from the beginning of the film, so entranced by the possibilities of a new medium. (Another danger of the all-encompassing biopic: Dissonance.)
Like most generic biopics, the film will likely resonate with viewers who are unfamiliar with Mapplethorpe’s work and legacy. Nancy Schreiber’s cinematography is stunning, highlighting the best of the artist’s work with style and panache. And as David Ehrlich pointed out at Indiewire when the film premiered at Tribeca last year, it mirrors the artist’s slow death, Schreiber’s golden-hued nostalgia for that vibrant time in New York City history (when artists could actually afford to live and work there) giving way to the bleak reality of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s.
In the end, watching Mapplethorpe die is sad, but more so by virtue of the devastating nature of the disease, and the countless others he represents, than by any emotion earned on screen. We never really had time to get to know this character, so how can we mourn him?