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Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures


Stars: Featuring: Debbie Harry, Frank Lebowitz, Brooke Shields,Paul Martineau

Director: Fenton Bailey , Randy Barbarto

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbarto's documentary delivers an unusual and fascinating biopic of controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Few punches are pulled as they delineate the life and times of a man who was denounced 25 years ago by US Senator Jesse Helms for his graphically homosexual and S&M works.

“Look at the pictures!” he specified as evidence.

Bailey and Barbato have taken Helms' statement at its face value to add visual impact to this extraordinary portrait of the artist cruelly summed up ay one state as “A known homosexual who died of AIDS”.

While, like their subject, the filmmakers never ignore Mapplethorpe’s openly gay sexuality, they have used unique access to hitherto unseen and unheard interviews with their subject, family including his younger brother and older sister, friends and former lovers, to paint a riveting – if sometimes patently pretentious – portrait of a unique man whose work transformed manifestly ‘dirty’ pictures into acknowledged art.

While Mapplethorpe had an affair with Patti Smith, his subsequent liaison with art collector Sam Wagstaff confirmed his sexuality and, importantly, served to catalyse his subsequent career and notoriety.

Much more interesting however, is the depiction of Mapplethorpe’s life growing up in a Catholic neighbourhood in the 1950s before moving to New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel where he bonded with Smith before finding fame and notoriety.

But it is Mapplethorpe himself who turns out to be the most valid, clear-headed and honest witness to his talents.

Mapplethorpe – Look at the Pictures vividly and frequently illustrates its subject’s obsessions.

His obsession with creating graphic art/ photographs of penises is vividly illustrated and patently justifies the ‘18’ certificate. But beware - various close ups of anally inserted objects may prove uncomfortable. And I say that as a former medical student!

(Surprisingly, perhaps, the film was made for television. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that it is an American production by HBO. I would have bet large that it must have been a Channel 4 film and I would have lost large as a result).

Alan Frank

USA/Germany 2016. UK Distributor: Dogwoof. Colour.
108 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 18.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 3, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 3, Swearing 3.

Review date: 24 Apr 2016