Jean-Michel Basquiat was an upper-middle class Brooklyn refugee who landed in SoHo in the late 1970s and made a name (or nom de plume as it were) for himself as a graffiti artist in the gritty but vibrant art community exploding in pre-Giuliani New York. Basquiat spraypainted oblique poetry and snappy cultural criticisms signing it SAMO (short for “same old shit”) before becoming a full-time paintor. This lifestyle, in the beginning, fully funded by his girlfriend as he was a devout bohemian opting to scrounge for change rather than work low-wage jobs. He quickly became a darling of the art world blending a universe of pop culture, sports and historical references with his raw, detailed, colorful work. He was a delight to art buyers, critics and fans who had grown weary of the the ultra-minimalist aesthetic popular at the time. One interviewee describes the scene as “white walls with white people drinking white wine” (a comment director Tamra Davis delights in placing over vintage footage shot in a room of nearly invisible glass objects in a brightly lit gallery).
Davis shot a lengthy interview with Basquiat in 1986 at the height of his fame (just two years prior to his fatal drug overdose at age 27) and uses this footage as a leaping off point to give his work and life a better context for understanding. Opting to illuminate the experiences rather than prognosticate on Basquiat’s state of mind, the film uses a wealth of newly shot interviews with collaborators, friends and fans that range from people who went on to attain great levels of success (Julian Schnabel and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore) to people who appear to be living in the same bohemian conditions but minus the Olsen twin irony. Enough years have lapsed that feelings of jealousy and anger about the way Basquiat may have treated them in his drug-addled later years has waned, their recollections are marked by an enduring respect for his creativity and work ethic as well as a sadder understanding that none of them could have prevented his premature death.
Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol is treated as sacrosanct (even though it seemed to precipitate Basquiat shucking his old friendships and using heroin “to increase his focus”) which also serves to illustrate the different social stratospheres that exist within a cultural movement that can become blurred though the course of history. Basquiat’s life then followed the sad, predictable trajectory of a young artist who becomes wealthier and more famous than all the people around him. Quickly alienated from his friends and too young to know how to find new grounding within a whirlwind of criticism and gold-diggers -- he easily bought into the mythology of ‘the artist too sensitive for this world’ and became a heavy drug user.
Radiant Child also delves into the complications Basquiat faced being the most famous person in any posh art gallery then stepping outside and being perceived as ‘a scary black man’ who couldn’t get a cab and was regularly hassled by the police. And inside the cultural movement that prided itself on breaking all pre-existing rules and notions Basquiat (understandably) bristled at constantly being described as “African” (his parents were Puerto Rican and Haitian) and “primal” by the professional art class.
Davis (along with editor Alexis Spraic, whose film Shadow Billionaire was one of my favorites last year) makes the sage choice to not play up New York’s drastic commercial sprawl since the 1970s. She uses footage from Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens to flesh out the landscape and steers clear of showing us how many Starbucks have cropped up in what used to be punk clubs and artists’ spaces. She also weaves together a fitting and beautiful soundtrack of Basquait’s own influences of noisy rock’n’roll, bebop and beat poetry.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens in Portland at Living Room Theater September 3rd.