Review: A Provocative, Prolific Photographer’s Life Is Focus of Mapplethorpe

Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner has long been one of my favorite observers of life, in that she doesn’t just point a camera at her subjects—like comedian/activist Russell Brand (Brand: A Second Coming), internet visionary Josh Harris (We Live in Public), or dueling rock bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols (Dig!). Instead, she imbeds herself in their lives and often embraces their passions as eagerly as they do. In many ways, she’s like an old-school rock journalist who lives the life to a degree and refuses to simply stand on the sidelines to observe. So it makes perfect sense that for her first narrative film, Mapplethorpe, she turns the camera on a subject who she would have absolutely pursued as a documentary subject had he not died 30 years ago.

Image courtesy of Variety

The film follows the iconic photographer of the erotic (played by former “Doctor Who” actor Matt Smith) from his earliest church-going days to dropping out of military school, deciding to pursue being a New York artist and almost immediately meeting up with fellow artist and eventual girlfriend Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). Moving from painting to photography after being given a Polaroid camera as a gift, Mapplethrope found his calling and began getting noticed in artistic circles, including one inhabited by patron, collector and rich, older eventual lover Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), who tolerated Mapplethorpe’s need to be surrounded by young, beautiful, naked men as part of his art, as well as to be his occasional companions.

Mapplethorpe allows its subject to examine why he was compelled to explore all sides of the creative passions, from his shocking, sexually inclined nudes to stunning, dramatic portraits of celebrities to serene, sensual shots of flowers and other inanimate objects that he still managed to playfully sexualize (one admirer called him a “shy pornographer”). The film shows how the artist needed to seduce, use and dispose of a succession of men in order to make his creations honest and provocative, without ignoring the fact that the guy was an asshole.

We see this in his relationship with his younger brother, Edward (Brandon Sklenar), who becomes Robert’s assistant and eventually wants to try his hand at photography as well, much to the elder’s dismay. But perhaps more to the point, Mapplethrope’s abusive tendencies can be seen in his professional and personal dealings with model Ken Moody (Rotimi Paul), whose flawless body was so admired by the photographer (especially the mid-section) that Moody became his primary model for quite some time.

Made in cooperation with the Mapplethorpe estate and without sparing us any of the artist’s most graphic images, the film embraces both the good and bad of what he could create and destroy. Drugs and anonymous sex in the early years of the AIDS epidemic was a dangerous path, made even more so by the fact that for a great number of his later years, he knew he was HIV+ and refused to get tested or stop having unprotected sex. I have no idea how many of the scenes in Mapplethrope are 100 percent factually accurate, but from what I know about him, the film—and particularly Smith—captures the spirit of the controversial figure quite magnificently. Smith is a man possessed and he embraces both the charm and danger of his character so completely that you don’t dare take your eyes off of him. If the film has one flaw, it’s that it moves almost too conventionally through Mapplethorpe’s life. But if the atmosphere of the movie actually matched the mind of the artist, we might not make it though the viewing experience unharmed.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.