These could form the basis of a scandalous story, but Bailey and Barbato’s new documentary about the artist surprises by depicting the exact opposite. The film is an intimate and complex portrayal of Mapplethorpe, not focused on the controversy around him but rather on the authentic person he was.

Robert Mapplethorpe 93.4289 4/18/02 Ellen Labenski
Robert Mapplethorpe
93.4289
4/18/02
Ellen Labenski

Through interviews – both new and archive – hundreds of photos and low key monochrome reenactments, the film fills in the gaps of what the collective mind recalls about Mapplethorpe, and reveals the story of a boy who became a young man, went to New York and became a landmark photographer.

The film’s narrative is not the usual documentary tale of a famous person’s rise to fame; instead it focuses on Mapplethorpe’s life, relationships and intimate development. As Marcus Leatherdalde, a former lover, says in the film, “the only people wanted in his life were rich people, famous people, and people he could have sex with”. Everyone fell into one of these categories, and every person served a means to an end.

I always was fascinated by the idea of taking sexuality and bringing it to a level where it hasn’t been before.

Mapplethorpe photographed wealthy people, famous people, his lovers and himself, but also flowers and children. And among the rich, the famous and his numerous lovers, Patti Smith was an exception. Their initially romantic relationship during their early New York years, co-habiting at the Chelsea Hotel and trying to find their way in the art world is well known. Smith’s award-winning 2010 memoir Just Kids is a candid account of their relationship, and of how important they were for each other. Yet, the film mentions her only briefly. In an online interview for Indiewire this April, the producers explain that having Smith in the film was not possible, something which turned out for the best. Not featuring her meant they had to dig deeper, something which eventually led them to unearthing previously unknown interviews with the artist, lost in the Mapplethorpe Foundation archives. Through those recordings, Mapplethorpe himself guides the focus of the story towards what he wanted and what was important to him, revealing who he really was.

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