Festival Film Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Director Tamra Davis says her film is not a biopic or a journalistic investigation into someone's background. This is a movie about and meant to show off the paintings and artwork of a young man she admired and came to call friend. The movie is centered around a hour-long interview and a couple of hours of footage Davis captured of Jean-Michel Basquiat two years prior to his death in 1988.
Basquiat came to Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn in the late 1970s and lived off the streets like a bum. He got involved with the underground art scene soon thereafter. He sprayed graffiti. He played in a rock band. He eventually started painting on canvases. He appeared on public access television. People started noticing and liking him. He shot to fame and all of a sudden was rich. He used and abused drugs. He became depressed after bad reviews and the death of his friend, Andy Warhol, and was soon dead himself of an overdose before the age of 30.
Davis' film is more or less a love letter to Basquiat, a cinematic tribute to a great artist who despite being of African and Puerto Rican descent became an international star. Davis includes one, brief, negative critic, but everything else is interviews and commentary from people who knew and loved Basquiat. In fact, most of the movie is these other people talking. The interview of Basquiat that Davis captured is so cut-up as to make any real insight from the artist's own lips very minimal.
What's remarkable is Davis got permission from the Basquiat estate to show a wide range of Basquiat's actual work in her movie, permission that has never been granted to a filmmaker in the 20 years since his death. Even the renowned artist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel, when he made his 1996 movie about Basquiat, didn't get permission. Instead, Schnabel did re-creations or interpretations of Basquiat's paintings himself.
With Tamra Davis, she provides the real paintings and drawings for analysis and just plain viewing. One thing people will learn from watching this movie, if you've never seen any of Basquiat's pieces, is that he incorporated a lot of text into his art. His paintings are very or at times quite verbal.
Even though Basquiat didn't like it, he was referred to as "The Black Picasso." He was said to have channeled his inner child when he painted and indeed some of his work is influenced by cartoons. Basquiat also invoked African styles as well as referenced other artists, often in direct ways. Davis called it sampling like what's done in hip hop music when you incorporate the work of someone else into a new piece of work. Basquiat's art was like a visual hip hop.