The Radiant Child
When Jean-Michel Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27, he was already a successful artist. Since then his reputation has only grown. In a somewhat fictionalized 1996 film biography, fellow artist Julian Schnabel tried to capture the ethereal quality that made this contradictory figure both maddening and fascinating. But as director Tamra Davis notes in an interview on this DVD, Schnabel’s film is as much about him as about Basquiat. Davis, who also knew Basquiat personally, set out to do a more traditional biography. The result struck some critics as too worshipful, but I disagree. Davis clearly loved her friend, but that didn’t stop her from showing him as he was – and unlike everyone else, she had the man himself on tape.
The film’s title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes. The notion was first applied to Basquiat (and others) by the poet Rene Ricard.
Studio: New Video
Film Length: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English DD 2.0 (226kb/ps)
Subtitles: English (partial, non-switchable)
Discs: 1 DVD-5
Theatrical Release Date: Jan. 25, 2010 (Sundance); July 21, 2010 (New York)
DVD Release Date: Nov. 9, 2010
In 1986, Davis shot a one-hour interview with Basquiat. This was a rare event, because Basquiat had become notoriously reluctant to be interviewed on camera, but Davis was a friend, having met the artist while she was in film school, and he trusted her. Before Davis had time to expand the interview into a film, Basquiat was dead, and she put away the footage. She would go on to direct music videos for such groups as Depeche Mode and the Beastie Boys (a member of whom she married), as well as feature films both successful (Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison) and disastrous (Britney Spears’s Crossroads).
In 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles asked Davis to prepare a short film to accompany a major retrospective of Basquiat’s work. The result was A Conversation with Basquiat, which used only a portion of the interview, but preparing the short film convinced Davis that the time had come to resume her original project. She set about interviewing anyone who had known the artist who would speak to her. (Not everyone was willing. Madonna’s career started in the same downtown New York arts scene, and she famously had an affair with Basquiat. But whatever she knows, she’s saving for her own memoirs.)
Basquiat was a person of contrasts and contradictions. His mother, who was Puerto Rican, began taking him to fine art museums at age six and thought that the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy was appropriate reading for a seven-year-old; she was also in and out of mental institutions. His father was Haitian and a successful accountant with a buttondown temperament who favored blue blazers with brass buttons. He was also said to be a drinker and abusive. Though Basquiat was raised in comfortable circumstances in a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, he repeatedly ran away from home until, in 1976 at age fifteen, he left for good, preferring to live broke and hungry on the streets of Manhattan. Though he never progressed beyond high school, Basquiat’s work is filled with references indicating voracious reading in the three languages he grew up speaking: English, French and Spanish.
Basquiat’s first works were as a graffiti artist under the name “SAMO”, which stood for “Same Old Shit”. Curiosity over the identity of SAMO ultimately built to the point where Basquiat was introduced to people in the art world who were willing to help him. One of them gave him enough money for materials to begin producing paintings. Blondie’s Deborah Harry was the first to buy one of his works; she paid $200. Then, when an established gallery owner, Annina Nosei, gave him her basement in which to work and exhibited his works, all of them sold in a night, and Basquiat made $200,000. Within a few years, he was a rich man and a media sensation.
And that’s when the trouble started.
Though driven and ambitious, Basquiat was totally unprepared for either wealth or fame. He had never held a normal job, conducted a routine life or undertaken anything resembling adult responsibilities. He knew nothing about handling money. The same person whom the press lionized as an enfant terrible conquering the art world was, in reality, shy, sensitive and frequently lonely, without any of the defense mechanisms that most of us learn from routine social interactions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Davis’ interview footage. One senses both in Basquiat’s answers to questions, and in the way he responds, an openness and a naivete that, from all indications, the artist seems to have cherished – even clung to with a kind of fierce determination, as if he couldn’t risk closing himself off from anything in the world that might inspire his work. But when someone becomes a celebrity, they can no longer afford the luxury of leaving their doors wide open.
On February 10, 1985, the New York Times featured Basquiat on the cover of its Sunday magazine in a story entitled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist”. By that time, he had already made friends with Andy Warhol, who was still considered an elder statesman of the art world. Though Warhol could be notoriously distant, he warmed to Basquiat, in no small part because he respected talent when he saw it. Warhol became almost a surrogate father to the young artist. He was the one person who might have had a chance of teaching Basquiat the practicalities of life in the art world that Warhol himself had navigated so successfully for years. But their friendship suffered when the critics panned a much-promoted show of their joint work in September 1985. (I didn’t see the show, but I remember seeing the posters everywhere. Several of the works are now recognized as masterpieces.)
Warhol’s sudden death in February 1987, from complications following gall bladder surgery, hit Basquiat hard. He had already been using heroin for several years, and his final attempt to get clean during a trip to Hawaii failed. Basquiat died of a drug overdose in his New York studio on August 12, 1988. Though four months shy of his 28th birthday, he left approximately 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings. His works are now exhibited in museums around the world. The current high price of record for a Basquiat sold at auction is $14.6 million.
Because Davis’s documentary alternates between contemporary interviews and her 1986 footage, it works as a kind of dialogue (assuming one can look past the superlatives that are inevitably heaped upon a significant talent extinguished too soon). The assured pronouncements about Basquiat’s greatness from agents, dealers, friend and admirers would quickly become cloying, if Davis didn’t keep cutting back to the hesitant, self-effacing young man who actually had to stand in front of a blank surface (or several, since Basquiat liked to work on several things at once) and imagine what to put there. And Davis didn’t just interview people whose praise is unqualified. Some of the frankest observations come from Suzanne Mallouk, who was Basquiat’s girlfriend before he became famous and helped him get started as much as any art dealer by supporting him before he could support himself.
In the special features, Davis says that among her goals for the film was to expose a larger audience to the artist’s work. In that she’s only partially successful, because her editing rhythms don’t allow the eye to linger on any one image – and almost everything Basquiat created was visually complex, so that the eye needs time to roam around and take it all in. The DVD would have greatly benefitted from a supplement of still images, but perhaps because of rights issues, none was included. For anyone interested, I recommend the Brooklyn Museum’s Basquiat page or the resource page, SmartWentCrazy.
The DVD’s image is reasonably detailed, especially given the low resolution of many of the archival source materials, including the 1986 interview. However, the contemporary interview footage and the images of Basquiat’s art have more noise and shimmering than they should, even at NTSC resolution, and it’s possible that the image would been better served by less compression and a DVD-9. The DVD’s image is certainly acceptable, but I saw the film theatrically and was hoping for better, especially with a film that seeks to further popularize an artist’s work.
Colors are generally strong and well-defined, but it would take Blu-ray’s color space to properly represent Basquiat’s work.
The soundtrack has been nicely mixed with music that Basquiat was known to favor. It includes bebop, jazz, rap and classical (Ravel’s Bolero was a favorite). Voices take priority, but the music sets the tone, and the stereo soundtrack has been thoughtfully encoded at a higher bitrate than is customary for Dolby Digital stereo on DVD. It sounds terrific.
Uncut Interview with Tamra Davis (1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (29:49). In this instance, “uncut” means “unedited”. The interview was shot in Davis’s home and is interrupted by distractions such as a phone call and someone entering and needing to be told that she’s being interviewed. It’s an impromptu affair for which Davis seems to have done little preparation, but perhaps she was trying to emulate the style of her 20-year-old interview with Basquiat. Davis does provide substantial background on the film, much of which has informed this review.
Trailer (1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (1:46). An accurate overview of the film.
As I have said elsewhere, I don’t know the art world, and I certainly know far less about painting than about film or narrative fiction. To me, the most remarkable feature of Basquiat’s work is that none of this matters. The work is arresting, powerful and provocative, even if, like me, you have no idea where it fits into a tradition, can’t analyze anything in it, and would be hopeless in a conversation about it. The show for which Tamra Davis created her original short film originated at the Brooklyn Museum, and I still remember seeing it five years ago: room after room, each one filled with canvases (or, in some cases, doors or window frames – Basquiat liked to paint on objects he’d find in the street). Almost every single one had something about it that made me stop and stare: some odd bit of graffiti incorporated into the design, an unusual flash of color, a disturbing or mysterious figure.
Not many painters succeed in addressing the viewer with such urgent directness. Tamra Davis’s film brings us as close to this painter as we are likely to get.
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub