Life

Loved Just Kids? Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s story is being turned into a film

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Matt Smith stars as the celebrated photographer in this new movie about his life.      

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe met when they were teenagers and would later go on to live, work and love together in New York in the Seventies.

Smith documented their relationship in poetic detail in her bestselling memoir Just Kids, published in 2010. And in 2019, their story – as well as the story of Mapplethorpe’s trailblazing career in art photography – will be laid out in the film Mapplethorpe.

Starring The Crown’s Matt Smith as Mapplethorpe as a young man and Marianne Rendón as Smith, the film premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and is slated for release in the US on 1 March, with a UK release to follow. 

The first trailer tells the story of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s early days knocking about the Chelsea Hotel and follows the artist’s move into the realm of provocative photography and his love affairs with other men.

But what is the true story of Mapplethorpe and Smith? And what can you expect from the movie? 

Who is Robert Mapplethorpe?

Born in 1946 in Queens, New York, Robert Mapplethorpe is one of the most celebrated American photographers of all time. He was raised in a strict Catholic family before leaving at the age of 16 to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Mapplethorpe is renowned for his black and white photography, some using Polaroid film, which focus on the unconventional beauty of his subjects and the human form. 

As well as portraiture, Mapplethorpe was drawn to erotica, nudity and other taboo subjects. Even in his famed flowers series, there is a sensual undertone to every image of arched orchids and lilies in bloom. 

Robert Mapplethorpe

Everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Iggy Pop, Grace Jones and Andy Warhol posed for Mapplethorpe, as well as countless other anonymous faces. His work has been featured on the cover of records, most notably Smith’s debut album Horses, magazines and the walls of major art galleries around the world.

Mapplethorpe died in 1989 of AIDS in Boston. 

Who is Patti Smith?

Born in 1946 in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Smith would go on to become an internationally acclaimed artist dubbed a “poet and punk-rock artiste” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

After falling pregnant as a teenager and giving her child up for adoption, Smith left New Jersey in 1967 for the bright lights of the biggest city in the world. New York was where she made a name for herself as a bohemian, befriending Mapplethorpe and playwright Sam Sheppard, and working in a bookshop while writing poetry by night.

Patti Smith

Smith’s debut album Horses was released in 1975 and became an instant hit. She would later release 10 more albums and several books of poetry and non fiction including Just Kids, which was a National Book Award winner in 2010. 

“A writer or any artist can’t expect to be embraced by the people” Smith has said. “I’ve done records where it seemed like no one listened to them. You write poetry books that maybe 50 people read. And you just keep doing your work because you have to, because it’s your calling.” 

What was Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s relationship like?

Smith and Mapplethorpe met in 1967 in New York and lived together for several years in the infamous Chelsea Hotel as close confidantes, lovers, artist and muse and, ultimately, soulmates.

It was Mapplethorpe who shot the iconic image of Smith that adorns the cover of her most celebrated album Horses. In the image, Smith reclines against a wall in shirtsleeves, suspenders and trousers, a tuxedo jacket slung over her shoulder. 

Smith in front of images Mapplethorpe took of her

In Just Kids, Smith describes the process of the pair working together in her trademark sparse prose. 

“Robert was ­concerned with how to make the ­photograph, and I with how to be the photograph,” she writes. Later, she describes Mapplethorpe as “the artist of my life.” 

Where did Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe live in the Chelsea Hotel?

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived in room 1017 in the Chelsea Hotel, the infamous stomping ground for New York’s famous artists, musicians and socialites on 222 West 23rd Street in, unsurprisingly, the Chelsea neighbourhood.

Over the years, the hotel has been home to a who’s-who of big names in the creative industries. Writers Arthur Miller and Allen Ginsberg, actors Jane Fonda and Edie Sedgwick, and artists Brett Whiteley, Willem de Koonig and Yves Klein all lived there at different times. 

Germaine Greer outside the Chelsea Hotel

But it was the musicians who really made the Chelsea Hotel famous. Everyone from Nico to Tom Waits, Jim Morrison to Marianne Faithfull, Cher to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix held the keys to a room there at one point or another. Madonna lived there in the early Eighties and shot images for her Sex book in room 822.

Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin conducted an affair at the hotel in the late Sixties that spawned two Cohen songs, one of which contains the memorable line: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were talking so brave and so sweet / Givin’ me head on the unmade bed”. 

What kind of art did Robert Mapplethorpe work on with Patti Smith?

Smith has recalled the early years of her relationship with Mapplethorpe as a time of creative intensity.

“He really felt a calling within him to be an artist. In order to make this decision and live by it, he had to do a few very difficult, very brave things,” Smith told i-D. “I met him just at that moment, 20 years old, where he really felt his destiny.”

To support Mapplethorpe’s artistic endeavours, Smith became the breadwinner, working in a bookshop to pay their bills. Later, while living in the Chelsea Hotel, she nicked lobster and crab claws from the restaurant so Mapplethorpe could turn them into necklaces.

And Smith, too, felt the artist’s call. Speaking to Interview magazine in 2010, she said: “Even as a kid, I wanted to be an artist. I also did not want to be trapped in the Fifties idea of gender. I grew up in the Fifties, when the girls wore really bright red lipstick and nail polish, and they smelled like Eau de Paris. Their world just didn’t attract me. I hid in the world of the artist—first the 19th-century artists, then the Beats. And Peter Pan.”

What is Just Kids by Patti Smith about? 

Smith with a copy of her memoir Just Kids

Just Kids is Smith’s memoir of her bohemian 20s in New York with Mapplethorpe. She wrote the book because she promised Mapplethorpe on his deathbed that she would write about their relationship.

“But it took a while, because the idea of writing a memoir about a departed friend while also having to navigate widowhood was too painful. For a while I had to sort of shelve the promise I made to Robert,” she told Interview.

The process of revisiting the past was a difficult one at times. “And sometimes, truthfully, it was painful,” she told Interview. “It made me miss him, you know? Sometimes I’d remember the atmosphere of our youth with such clarity that it hurt. So I’d have to let go of it for months and months.”

What is the Mapplethorpe movie about?

Mapplethorpe focuses on the life of the titular artist and photographer. Beginning with his relationship with Smith, it then explores his evolution as an artist, his sexuality and relationships with men and his death of AIDS in 1989 at the age of just 42.

Who is the cast for Mapplethorpe?

Matt Smith stars as Mapplethorpe and Marianne Rendón stars as Smith. The cast also includes Hari Nef, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mark Moses. Zosia Mamet was originally attached to star as Smith, but she had to pull out because of scheduling reasons.

Matt Smith at the premiere of Mapplethorpe

What are the critics saying about Mapplethorpe

Not fantastic things, to be honest. The movie has only a 38% score on Rotten Tomatoes and has received some negative reviews from critics. 

“Deeply by the book, the photographer is treated as though he was any other 20th-century figure. What a disservice,” Awards Circuit noted. 

Added Observer: “You go away feeling soiled and confused, disliking and distrusting him more than you did going in.” 

However, the New York Post praised Smith’s performance as the photographer. “There are two things that make the flawed Mapplethorpe worth a watch: Matt Smith’s dedicated performance, and a reverent inclusion of so much of the artist’s work,” they wrote. 

The use of Mapplethorpe’s real pictures was also considered the film’s strong point by the New York Times: “[It is] most alive when it’s putting its subject’s pictures on the screen, which it does often. And should have done more, because the movie is otherwise as timid as its subject was bold.” 

Who is the director of Mapplethorpe?

Director Ondi Timoner, a two-time Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize winner, is helming the film.

When is Mapplethorpe released?

The movie is released in cinemas on 1 March in the US, with a UK release date to follow.

Images: YouTube/Interloper films, Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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