×

Basquiat

The second movie this year to feature Andy Warhol and the New York art scene as a backdrop, albeit in a different decade, "Basquiat" is a decently modest, though decidedly unexciting, attempt to illuminate the short, tumultuous life of Jean Michel Basquiat, the noted black artist who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose.

With:
Jean Michel Basquiat - Jeffrey Wright
Rene Ricard - Michael Wincott
Benny Dalmau - Benicio Del Toro
Gina Cardinale - Claire Forlani
Andy Warhol - David Bowie
Bruno Bischofberger - Dennis Hopper
Albert Milo - Gary Oldman
The Interviewer - Christopher Walken
The Electrician - Willem Dafoe
Mary Boone - Parker Posey
Annina Nosei - Elina Lowensohn
Henry Geldzahler - Paul Bartel
Cynthia Kruger - Tatum O'Neal
Tom Kruger - Chuck Pfeiffer
Big Pink - Courtney Love

The second movie this year to feature Andy Warhol and the New York art scene as a backdrop, albeit in a different decade, “Basquiat” is a decently modest, though decidedly unexciting, attempt to illuminate the short, tumultuous life of Jean Michel Basquiat, the noted black artist who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. Whatever is wrong with the conceptual framework and execution of Julian Schnabel’s feature debut is almost compensated for by an illustrious cast of terrific actors that includes Benicio Del Toro, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper and, probably best of all, David Bowie in a brilliant Warhol impersonation. Mixed critical reaction won’t much help a film that has limited crossover appeal, but, with aggressive marketing, Miramax might draw the arthouse/indie crowd that embraced “I Shot Andy Warhol” earlier this summer.

As writer and director, Schnabel should be commended for avoiding Hollywood’s biopic cliches about artists, as Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame and tragic death at the age of 27 would have fit perfectly the timeworn formula. At the same time, he has not come up with a dramatic scheme that would effectively capture the life of an eccentric artist whom the N.Y. Times once described as “the art world’s closest equivalent to James Dean.” “Basquiat” feels more like observations on the tragic life of a painter than a fully realized narrative with a strong emotional center.

“Nobody wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh,” says poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) early on, setting the tone for an exploration of a paradox: a celebrated American the general public has never heard of. Story begins in 1981, with the 19-year-old Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), then named Samo, an angry East Village graffiti artist, drawn into the alluring subculture of drugs.

In broad strokes, tale paints him as a bohemian who detests bourgeois, middle-class society — he sleeps on a cardboard box in a back yard until rain forces him to beg his friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro) for shelter. Not much family background is provided, though it’s clear that he’s tormented by a mentally ill mother who’s in a convent.

An art world insider himself, Schnabel aims to elucidate the inherent conflict between a misunderstood, rebellious genius and his surrounding crass society. But he seems reluctant to take a definite view of his subject — it’s never clear whether Basquiat was a victim of his self-destructive personality or of his exploitative, materialistic milieu. He certainly enjoyed being courted by dealers and collectors, and the rewards that went along with notoriety — there’s a lovely scene in which he buys $ 3,000 worth of caviar and then asks Warhol to pick up the bill.

It’s also hard to understand why “everyone who met him was immediately drawn into his orbit,” as one character says. This shortcoming is a combined result of the portrait as crafted by Schnabel, but also of the nonassertive performance by Wright, a gifted stage actor who, despite some touching moments, is not entirely compelling. Schnabel also fails to illuminate the broader context, the fast-and-frenzied ’80s that made Soho not only a hot art scene, but also a chic neighborhood for New York scenesters.

On the plus side, “Basquiat” doesn’t have the static visual quality of “Search and Destroy,” also made by a painter, though Schnabel’s film is just as fragmented as David Salle’s 1995 movie and just as rambling in finding the right tone to tell its potentially fascinating story.

Still, despite an overly episodic structure, the movie has its share of splendid moments, particularly those depicting Basquiat’s interactions with Warhol and with his buddy Benny, friendships that somehow help fathom his psyche as an artist and a man. But the film also contains many maladroit moments that drag it down, like the on-and-off romance with Gina (Claire Forlani), a waitress Basquiat meets in a coffee shop.

Drama is at its liveliest and most entertaining inthose vignettes featuring the artist’s eccentric peers and associates, including Dennis Hopper as international art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Gary Oldman as fellow painter Albert Milo, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, and a dozen thesps whose roles are based on a mixture of real and fictional personalities.

“Basquiat” doesn’t have a painterly quality, as could be expected of a movie made by a visual artist; production values are functional without being striking. John Cale’s vigorous score propels nicely an overly episodic narrative , evocatively enhancing its various moods.

As with “The Player,” “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” and other “inside” movies, one of the dangers of having such a resplendent cast is that the audience might be distracted by a spotting game (“Here’s Paul Bartel, and there’s Tatum O’Neal”). Not in this case: Singly and collectively, high-spirited actors make the film far less dreary and downbeat than it would have been without them.

Popular on Variety

Basquiat

Production: A Miramax release of a Jon Kilik presentation of a Peter Brant/Joseph Allen production. Produced by Jon Kilik, Randy Ostrow, Joni Sighvatsson. Executive producers, Peter Brant, Joseph Allen, Michiyo Yoshizaki. Co-producer, Lech Majewski. Directed, written by Julian Schnabel, based on a story by Lech Majewski, developed by Michael Thomas Holman.

Crew: Camera (DuArt color), Ron Fortunato; editor, Michael Berenbaum; music, John Cale; production design, Dan Leigh; art direction , C.J. Simpson; set decoration, Susan Bode; costume design, John Dunn; sound (Dolby), Allan Byer; assistant director, Jonathan Starch; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Georgianne Walken. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, L.A., July 10, 1996. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With: Jean Michel Basquiat - Jeffrey Wright
Rene Ricard - Michael Wincott
Benny Dalmau - Benicio Del Toro
Gina Cardinale - Claire Forlani
Andy Warhol - David Bowie
Bruno Bischofberger - Dennis Hopper
Albert Milo - Gary Oldman
The Interviewer - Christopher Walken
The Electrician - Willem Dafoe
Mary Boone - Parker Posey
Annina Nosei - Elina Lowensohn
Henry Geldzahler - Paul Bartel
Cynthia Kruger - Tatum O'Neal
Tom Kruger - Chuck Pfeiffer
Big Pink - Courtney Love

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content