Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

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Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***

In the mid-1980s, filmmaker Tamra Davis videotaped an interview with painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. When he died in 1988 at the age of 27, she put the footage away and kept it there until recently. That footage is the raison d'être for Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a feature-length documentary about Basquiat and his turbulent life.

Born to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat ran away from home as a teen and came to New York City. He began as a graffiti artist and quickly joined the circle of New York artists, musicians and filmmakers of the early 1980s. He eventually moved from walls to canvases, began to appear in galleries, and began to sell his art. He became very rich, very quickly. An association with his hero Andy Warhol turned the public against him and he began to fall just as quickly as he climbed. Eventually, drugs did him in.

Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who is on hand here for comment, has already made the 1996 biopic, Basquiat. That film didn't really work for me, since it never really burrowed inside the painter's soul. We were left not knowing much about him, and sadly, that's the case here. What Davis shows us is interviews with many New York artists who apparently knew Basquiat. The general tone of the interviews is that each person wants to believe he or she had some kind of impact in Basquiat's life, but the portrait that emerges is that of the painter as a loner. Even during Davis' interview footage, Basquiat doesn't appear to show any kind of fondness for, or even recollection of, Davis.

Moreover, most of the interview subjects make great claims as to Basquiat's talent, but the film doesn't bother to explain this to the laypeople in the audience. We're told, over and over, for 90 minutes that he was a genius and a groundbreaking artist, and that's it. Davis throws in one lone naysayer, who barks that Basquiat made no impact on art history, but this appearance is so brief the film practically discounts him by default.

Most of this can't really be blamed on Davis. Basquiat appears to be a slippery subject, not unlike Bob Dylan, who is very difficult to decipher. It's possible to make something that explores and celebrates the idea of elusiveness, like Todd Haynes' brilliant I'm Not There (2007) with Dylan, but Davis -- who has made some interesting indie films before she went off to Hollywood to make films like Billy Madison (1995) and Crossroads (2002) -- is more content to have fun with her cool artists' club. Even her coveted interview footage reveals nothing much, except for a dynamic, mysterious artist who seemed to know how to be a celebrity as well as he knew how to be a painter.

New Video and ArtHouse Films' DVD boasts an "uncut interview with Davis," which is a new interview with Davis, not the Basquiat footage. The only other extra is a trailer.


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