Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Mapplethorpe Movie Poster Image
Graphic sexual imagery in biopic of famous photographer.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 102 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Demonstrates how hard work and perseverance, as well as staying true to your own vision, can lead to success. But shows that success can also come with iffy behavior, sickness, drugs, many other downsides.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As portrayed here, Mapplethorpe is highly unpleasant, doesn't think twice about treating people around him badly or rudely, so long as he gets his way.


Arguing. Tantrum-throwing.


Graphic nudity and sexual situations, mostly in still photographs. Full-frontal male nudity. Partial female nudity (bottoms and breasts). Kissing. Couples (both opposite-sex and same-sex) lie in bed together, kissing, presumably after sex. Mapplethorpe has multiple sexual partners. Quick scene inside a men's sex club shows men in bondage, leather, and sex-related gestures. Other sexual situations (man searching for sex with a prostitute, brief spanking, etc.).


Very strong language, with many uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "c--k," "ass," "d--k," "goddamn," and "God" (as an exclamation).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Heavy drug use: acid, cocaine, pot, etc. Main character encourages younger brother to try cocaine. Cigarette smoking. Wine with lunch.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mapplethorpe is a very mature biopic about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), who became famous for his black-and-white photos of celebrities, flowers, and male erotica. It has very strong, graphic sexual material, mostly in the form of photographs, but there's also full-frontal male nudity, bare breasts/bottoms, many sexual situations (both same-sex and opposite-sex), and characters having multiple partners. Language is also strong, with uses of "f--k," "c--k," "s--t," and more. Drug use is prevalent; characters drop acid and snort cocaine (Mapplethorpe encourages his younger brother to try cocaine), as well as smoke pot and cigarettes and drink socially. There's some arguing and tantrum-throwing, but otherwise violence isn't an issue. Former Doctor Who Matt Smith is terrific in the lead role, but the rest of the movie is flat, uninspired, and frequently unpleasant. Note: This review is for the original version of the film; an extended director's cut is also available that may include additional content not covered here.

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What's the story?

In MAPPLETHORPE, young Robert Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith) decides to drop acid -- and then drop out of college. He moves to New York and works odd jobs while trying to establish himself as an artist. He meets Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), and they strike up a relationship, moving into the Chelsea Hotel together. A neighbor, Sandy Daley (Tina Benko), gives Mapplethorpe his first camera, and he starts his career as a photographer. At the same time, Mapplethorpe begins exploring his attraction to men, which h'd been suppressing. His photographs are a cross-section of beautiful, black-and-white celebrity portraits, flowers, and gay erotica, which completely baffles galleries. Meanwhile, though Mapplethorpe has shunned his family, his worshipful younger brother, Edward (Brandon Sklenar), becomes a mistreated assistant. As the 1980s roll around, Mapplethorpe finds himself growing terribly ill, even as his work grows more celebrated.

Is it any good?

Smith is effortlessly good, but his efforts are wasted in this numbing, by-the-numbers biopic, and the real Mapplethorpe's striking visual creations are blunted by a middling, timid presentation. Directed by Ondi Timoner, who made the excellent rock documentary DIG! (2004), Mapplethorpe is a surprising dud. It prompts the question: How could the filmmakers have looked at those lustrous photographs and then settled on such a flat, lifeless, monotonous look and feel for their movie? It plods forward, driven by an unsurprising collection of pop songs and montages.

Even more puzzling is the decision to actually show some of Mapplethorpe's more graphic photos while failing to grasp any kind of human sensuality among the characters; it's a chaste movie about a risqué subject. All of the secondary characters drift in and out of the movie, serving only to react with and to the main character; none of them come to life on their own. Smith is excellent -- adopting an accent and a swagger and an artist's obsession -- but everything that happens around him serves to mute his work. Perhaps worse, no one seemed to realize that this particular progression of events makes Mapplethorpe look like a highly unpleasant person, and that it might be distasteful to spend the movie's 102 minutes with him.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Mapplethorpe deals with nudity and sex. What is the movie trying to say with its images? Are they beautiful? Shocking? What values are imparted?

  • How are drugs depicted? Are they glamorized? Are there consequences for the characters' drug use? Why does that matter?

  • What makes art "great"? Who decides when art is good, and how? Who decides what is offensive?

  • What's the appeal of artist biopics? How does this one compare to other biopics about artists you've seen?

  • Is Mapplethorpe a role model? Is he someone to emulate? Why or why not?

Movie details

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