Ondi Timoner is a wonderful director, primarily of documentaries. She was at the helm of one of my favorite documentaries of all time and possibly the best music doc of the 21st century, Dig! (Which if you don’t know is a chronicle of “rival” bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols on their debauched journey through music stardom in the ’90s. If you haven’t seen it, watch it IMMEDIATELY!) So when I read that Ondi Timoner was directing a film about world-renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I thought it would be a documentary at first.
Even though Mapplethorpe is not a documentary, it has elements that make you feel like you are watching one. First, a treasure trove of Mapplethorpe’s actual photos both the controversial to the commercial are shown throughout the film. Secondly, the visual representation of New York in the ’70s and ’80s makes one feel as though that’s exactly when the film is being shot. The film is only really topped by the television series The Deuce in that regard.
“The events that cause the trauma at the root of Mapplethorpe’s psyche…”
Another thing that makes Mapplethorpe seem so shockingly realistic is Matt Smith’s incredible portrayal of the late photographer. It might be a little bit of a shock to the system to see “The Eleventh Doctor” snorting cocaine and going to leather daddy bars at first, but it doesn’t take long for one to forget that they’re even watching Matt Smith portray Mapplethorpe. He embodies the renegade artist. It’s one of the most impressive performances in a film I’ve seen so far in 2019.
There is a great deal of focus put on the film’s visual storytelling, which makes sense to an extent when one considers this is a film about a photographer. The events that cause the trauma at the root of Mapplethorpe’s psyche, which produced the art, to begin with, are sort of glazed over. For example, Robert’s fraught relationship with his parents, Harry and Joan (played by Mark Moses and Carolyn McCormick respectively) could have been explored in much more detail, as well as his famous relationships with Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff. Not saying that there aren’t some wonderful moments that touch on these facts, I just would have liked to see more.
“…a treasure trove of Mapplethorpe’s actual photos both the controversial to the commercial are shown throughout the film.”
It’s hard for me to decide if the fact that the film doesn’t delve too much into the biographical history is important or not because it focuses on the art, and how Mapplethorpe came to be a great artist. We’re able to thoroughly explore his somewhat caustic personality and its effect on the others around him. Perhaps these elements are most important. The film does have a wonderful overall emotional intelligence and reveals the pain that comes with suffering from HIV and AIDS in a world that not only stigmatized the disease but also the people who had it. There’s a strong political undercurrent in the film, placing a lens on homophobia that’s still alive and well in certain parts of our country and the world.
Overall, I would recommend seeing this film if you are a fan of Mapplethorpe’s work, the New York art world, or of Matt Smith. He gives a bravura performance which outshines everything and everyone on screen. I didn’t formerly have much interest in watching The Crown, to be quite frank, and I’m not really sure why, but seeing Smith in this role makes me want to see everything he does from here on out. I also commend Ondi TImoner for using her talents as a documentarian to convey the world of Mapplethorpe to people who weren’t so fortunate to be around while he was, which wasn’t long enough at all.
Mapplethorpe (2019) Directed by Ondi Timoner. Written by Ondi Timoner and Mikko Alanne. Starring Matt Smith, John Benjamin Hickey, Marianne Rendón, Tina Benko, Kerry Butler, Brandon Skenlar, Thomas Phillip O’Neill, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Rotimi Paul, etc.
7 out of 10 stars