Tamra Davis’ labor of love, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” is a tender ode from one friend to another, but it’s also another wheel in the hype machine that persists around the late, famed painter who blew apart the art scene in the 1980s. That it is both at the same time will complicate reaction to the talking-heads-heavy doc, which likely will play to a select art-savvy crowd worldwide.
Davis discloses up front that she was a close friend of Basquiat, who opened himself up to perhaps his most expansive interview with Davis and designer Becky Johnson during the period he lived in Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. That interview provides the pic with significant insight into Basquiat’s thinking and personality; relaxed and smiling, among pals, the young painter is in his best form at the height of his career.
A compact description of New York in the late ’70s — where Downtown artists found an open atmosphere amid grungy, crime-ridden conditions — sets the stage for Basquait’s arrival in 1979 at age 19. Literally making his mark with graffiti on public walls under the nom de plume “Samo” (short for same old thing), Basquiat quickly caused a small sensation with tagging that played with words rather than images. The allure of his anonymity compounded his local fame, and his ties to the emerging new art scene are best seen in clips from Glenn OBrien’s public access show, “TV Party,” where Basquiat became something of a star.
At the same time, important curators and dealers like Diego Cortez and Jeffrey Deitch began to champion his work once he shifted his graffiti sensibilities to canvas. Like many of his young peers, Basquiat lived hand-to-mouth, but enjoying it (or so he says to Davis and Johnson a few years later). Key to the cautionary aspect of Basquiat’s rise and fall was the suddenness of his fame, thrusting him from absolute poverty to multimillionaire status in little more than a year. Attracting the likes of art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Basquiat’s paintings are called masterpieces almost from the start.
The personal and emotional dangers inherent in this are sensitively captured by Davis, whose impressive access to people like longtime g.f. Suzanne Mallouk makes this a keeper for Basquiat devotees. Lacking, however, is an honest appraisal of whether the hyping of Basquiat was justified; with a roster of participants stuffed with friends, the pic lacks the voices of more objective observers — and even stacks the deck when the one critic is Hilton Kramer, who customarily dismisses contempo art in general.
Was this black child of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants an exotic object of fascination for the white-dominated art world? Davis creditably addresses this, with nifty comments on art and media racism by hip-hop pioneer and early friend, Fab 5 Freddy. Artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel sums up Basquiat’s ensuing problems dealing with fame, money and the pressure to produce work: “He didn’t have the tools to navigate the sea of shit. He just wanted to have fun.”
Drug use, especially, heroin, is cited here as a key factor in Basquiat’s decline and death in 1988. But there’s a gnawing sense indirectly left by the film that even his death can be made as a part of the Basquiat celeb hype. Clip selection is downright amazing at points, while talking-heads lensing and sound recording are extremely erratic.