You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

A tender ode from one friend to another, but it's also another wheel in the hype machine.

With: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, Fab 5 Freddy, Larry Gagosian, Suzanne Mallouk, Annina Nosei, Glenn O'Brien, Julian Schnabel, Tony Shafrazi, Tamra Davis, Hilton Kramer, Andy Warhol.

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.

Popular on Variety

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child


Production: An Arthouse Films (U.S.)/Curiously Bright Entertainment (U.S.)/LM Media (Germany) presentation in association with Fortissimo Films. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Tamra Davis, David Koh, Lilly Bright, Stanley Buchtal, Alexis Manya Spraic. Executive producer, Maja Hoffman. Directed by Tamra Davis.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Davis, David Koh, Harry Geller; editor, Alexis Manya Spraic; music, J. Ralph, Adam Horowitz, Mike Diamond; sound (stereo). Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2010. Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, Fab 5 Freddy, Larry Gagosian, Suzanne Mallouk, Annina Nosei, Glenn O'Brien, Julian Schnabel, Tony Shafrazi, Tamra Davis, Hilton Kramer, Andy Warhol.(English dialogue)

More Film

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content