Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a fine, visually handsome biographical documentary about the brief life and even briefer career of the great 20th Century artist, and a film that demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of what might be called the "cinema of personal affiliation." Directed by Tamra Davis, a filmmaker and Basquiat associate who conducted a seemingly limited but relatively global interview with the artist at the height of his notoriety, Child benefits from Davis' close affiliation with her subject, but would be even better if it fully appreciated the distinction between detailed analysis and advocacy. Despite some technical limitations, Child is a slam-dunk commercially; production costs were presumably minimal, and Davis' artful and comprehensive use of archive footage gives this Child an epic sweep. Expect art aficionados, pop culture junkies and the crowd that assembles around car crashes and celebrity sightings to give this film notable art house traction, and a long life on DVD.
Using clips from home movies, newsreels and public access TV, Davis does a heroic job of bringing the edgy and diffuse mixed-media New York art scene of the '80s back to life, and her emphasis on Basquiat's work, which is copiously presented, gives the casual viewer a virtual art class on his evolution and significance. It still feels like the rough edges of this ambitious, seductive creative figure have been sanded down considerably though-an act of friendship, perhaps, though not necessarily an enhancement to the film's sense of complete veracity.
Basquiat emerges as a brilliant figure whose career in some ways just happened to him. An ethereal beauty who looked more like a film student's idea of an artist than the thing itself, Basquait benefited again and again when important figures reacted to his careful, thoughtful and shrewd self-presentation like schoolchildren with wild crushes.
Warhol took to him instantly, buying several postcard collages from him at a time when Basquiat had yet to create a single canvas. Art agents prodded him into making his first serious efforts at gallery-quality pieces. When an independent film collective made Downtown 81, a film about a fictional artist, it cast Basquiat as the lead, providing him with his first stretched canvas, initially as a prop. Gallery owner Annina Nosei even cleared out the basement level of her salon and let Basquiat use it as a studio rent free, only objecting when he played Ravel's "Bolero" for days on end at top volume as he executed canvas after canvas with characteristic creative passion and speed.
In a sense, Basquiat himself became a collective art project, and it would have been predictable if he was ultimately clothes without an emperor (as some early critics contended) and the work never lived up to the hype. But Basquiat was the real deal-a protean amalgamation of expressionism, collage artist and tagger that somehow came out as something entirely unique. Even his earliest pieces-t-shirts and postcards generated on the advice of friends so he could stop living in semi-homelessness on the New York streets-show an amazing command of texture, white space, color and line.
With so much significant sponsorship as well as ferocious talent, Basquiat moved from a young aspirant cadging drinks from winos and living off 15-cent bags of Cheetos to millionaire artiste in around two years. The impact of reputation and security on his work was amazing-his output of masterpieces rivals Van Gogh's at Arles, during a period that was only slightly less brief. But he was very young-just 22 when he hit what many observers feel was his creative peak. He handled adulation and sudden wealth badly; if the rise was meteoric, the crash was too. Basquiat would be dead of a drug overdose by age 27.
Davis, who met Basquiat while a film student, was just 19 years old when she interviewed him, and her youth and their personal relationship seems to have disarmed him somewhat, though on camera, he never fully lets down his guard. She caught Basquiat at the apex of his beauty and reputation, and his responses to her questions are as fascinating for the long pauses and enigmatic smiles as for the answers he gives her-the way he sustains the riddle of his being, even while ostensibly helping her deconstruct his personal mythology.
It would be nice to report that Davis is willing to complete her portrait by delving into Basquiat's well-documented dark side-his willingness to shed lovers, patrons and collaborators when they stopped being useful or his tormented relationship to his family. Basquiat's greatness is secure after all, and can only be enhanced by as complete an understanding as possible of his humanity.
But it's probably too much to expect a friend still in mourning over a profound loss to go fully into the more unflattering aspects of Basquiat's mystery. By creating such an overt but knowledgeable labor of love, Davis still gives us a work of real understanding, genuine scope and the rarest kind of intimacy.
Distributor: Arthouse Films
Director: Tamra Davis
Producers: David Koh, Lilly Bright, Stanley Buchthal, Alexis Spraic
Running time: 88 min
Release date: July 21 NY