Friday, August 20, 2010

Reverend's Review: Art Appreciation

While I'm no artist and didn't know him personally, the death of celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988 at the age of 27 nonetheless affected me. I was only 21 at the time but had been reading about his growing success and friendship/collaboration with Andy Warhol, who died shortly before Basquiat under similarly unexpected circumstances.

Fellow artist Julian Schnabel (who knew Basquiat personally in New York) paid tribute to the young artist in his well-received 1996 biopic Basquiat, in which Jeffrey Wright gave an attention-grabbing performance as the talented-beyond-his-years, drug-addicted title subject. However, Tamra Davis' new documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, will likely go down as the definitive account of a too-brief career and life, not least because Basquiat himself tells a good part of his story via outtakes from a never-before-seen 1986 video interview.

As we learn from the film's great opening credits sequence, which intersperses quotes about Basquiat's impact with shots of his art, even Madonna was envious of the young man's early success. The American-born but African-French-Creole Basquiat was "at the epicenter of art" when he was 18 years old, according to current MOCA Los Angeles curator Jeffrey Deitch. He soon became the protégé of Warhol who, one observer notes, "probably had a crush on Basquiat." Though Basquiat was straight, he didn't seem to shy from friendships with openly gay fellow artists, including Keith Haring, and once welcomed interviewer Rene Ricard to his home while stark naked.


Basquiat referenced numerous other art works and artists in his work — da Vinci, Van Gogh and Picasso chief among them — and was even referred to as "the black Picasso," which Basquiat found racist. By 1983, his paintings were selling for approximately $30,000 each and Basquiat had become a millionaire. He left over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings at the time of his death, marking an incredibly prolific life.

Too many films depicting artists and the artistic process are stuffy and cerebral. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a welcome exception. It is fast-moving without sacrificing depth or detail, and generously showcases many of Basquiat's paintings. Davis's pop culture-attuned eye (she previously directed music videos by Depeche Mode, The Bangles and the Beastie Boys as well as the movies CB4 and Billy Madison) and Alexis Manya Spraic's impressive editing bring Basquiat's youthful, at times manic, spirit to cinematic life 22 years after his death from a drug overdose.

In the wake of Basquiat's move to Manhattan to pursue an artistic career while he was still a teenager, he learned that it is "difficult to go home once one has chosen a counter-cultural, subversive lifestyle." The film recounts Basquiat's subsequent, strained relationship with his father. These moments especially provide artistically-inclined and/or GLBT viewers alike the opportunity to identify with and feel for a great talent whose life was cut far too short.

Reverend's Rating: A-

UPDATE: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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