Filling a documentary void that’s surprising given the subject’s fame, feature helmer Tamra Davis delivers a thoroughly engaging film about an inimitable New York painter without letting her sorrow over his early death turn the portrait maudlin or diminish its vibrancy.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child has a well-rounded appeal for art house crowds and, once on DVD, will be a fine complement to the 1996 Julian Schnabel biopic.
The project was built around footage Davis shot when the artist was 25 and part of her circle of friends. That material is valuable for its informal look at Basquiat’s post-success state of mind, but Davis makes it feature-worthy by assembling a collection of interviews with New York players whose recollections matter, from the art-centric (Schnabel, heavyweight gallery owners) to all-around hipsters like Glenn O’Brien, whose ‘TV Party’ was a romper room for the much-mythologised downtown art/music/fashion scene.
Largely avoiding early biographical material (in return for his cooperation, Davis promised Basquiat’s father she’d leave the family out of it) the film gives us just enough to explain the wide range of cultural material Basquiat had digested before his brain-teasing “SAMO” graffiti brought him to the art world’s attention.
She shows us things we might not know about the artist – like the band, Gray, in which Basquiat attempted to play clarinet and evidently inspired Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – and makes evocative use of vintage footage shot when Lower Manhattan was still a frontier for the creative but poor.
While chronicling the savvy that enabled the impoverished scribbler to morph so quickly into a painting superstar, Davis includes poignant observations about race – Fab Five Freddy remembers how the man could go from the center of attention within a gallery to being unable to hail a cab outside it – and about Basquiat’s longing to be taken seriously as an artist.
The documentary is well illustrated with examples of Basquiat’s work, some of which are little-seen pieces. But even those who dispute his place in art history should come away with a feeling for the man whose brief career is a textbook example of a flame burning too bright to last.