Monday, July 19, 2010

Tamra Davis' radiant movie JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD opens

There was indeed something quite radiant about the young street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat -- in his character, appearance and (sometimes) art -- and Tamra Davis' new documentary JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD captures this quite beautifully.  As did, I think, the earlier movie starring Jeffrey Wright that was written and directed by artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel. The two films make a nice set of bookends about this sad and troubled young man who could not handle the seldom-seen but oft remarked-upon cliché of "overnight success."  Basquiat was about as good an example of that rare happening as any I know.

His star rose and rose, thanks to his own artistic talent, his ability to market and manipulate, and his capacity to turn out decent art with almost indecent speed -- and of course to the media's evergreen ability to proclaim and anoint.

Basquiat was also, as you'll have no doubt after seeing either of these movies, a child. He never began to grow up, and once success arrived with its usual whammy, he never would. Ms Davis' movie (the filmmaker is shown at left) came about, the director explains, when she re-discovered some footage she had taken of the young artist (who was a friend of hers) that she had deliberately buried soon after Basquiat died.  This footage provides much of what is best about her film, and it shows Jean-Michel full of creativity, spirit and fun, as well as some confusion, grandiosity and paranoia.

Davis also interviews everyone from the artist's first girlfriend -- who worked in an East Village bar/restaurant, and with whom Basquiat lived and who evidently helped him through the days prior to his success -- to agents, friends, gallery owners and other artists, including Mr. Schnabel.  Through all of this a picture begins to emerge of a personality and his art.  I wish that we had heard a bit more about the negative side of JMB to help balance the whole, and more about the artist's parents, especially his oddly distant father, whose approval Basquiat seemed to want and need.

The artist's affinity for and relationship with Andy Warhol is also explored, with about as much negative outcome as positive to be found.  Their dual show, the poster for which is shown above, was among the last for both men.

The film's 88 minutes pass quickly, with a number of highs along the way. Spending quality time (movie-quality, at least) with Basquiat, as we are able to do here, will probably make us appreciate his art all the more.  Great I do not think he was; that he was good, and sometimes much more, there is little doubt. He was unique in his ablility to communicate a wealth of ideas bracingly, stirringly -- if not richly.  His style, often scratchy and frenetic, rarely achieved beauty.  You can study it and be fascinated, but it is not the sort of thing many of us could live with 'round the clock. He was a "natural" artist, which meant that he could turn out art on a dime -- fast and furiously but not always with the same skill or success.

Ms Davis' film begins its two-week run this Wednesday, July 21, at New York City's Film Forum; click here for screening times and dates. You can find further screenings/playdates in your own area of the country here.  (Note: Ms Davis herself will appear at Film Forum for a Q&A after the 8pm shows on both July 21 & July 22.)

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