Part of the reason that celebrities occupy a monarchical stratosphere, particularly in the United States, is that we seem, as a society, addicted not only to the traditional narrative cycles of debutante presentation, evolution, destruction and reinvention, but also the polarities that the rich and famous live out — lifestyles of wild excess which, by definition, cannot be sustained. Rock ‘n’ rollers probably most embody this behavior. But one of the few modern traditional artists who seemed, on an almost instinctive level, to grasp the peculiarities of this public appetite was Jean-Michael Basquiat, a painter who rocketed from graffiti-tagging anonymity and bohemian near-homelessness to avant-garde superstar status, and the subject of an absorbing but fawning new documentary, Jean-Michel
Basquiat: The Radiant Child, opening this week at the
Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.
Directed by Tamra Davis, who developed a close friendship with the late artist, the film is centered around on a rare and heretofore unshared interview that she and another friend conducted with Basquiat over 20 years ago. Still, it’s not merely a postcard from the grave. While her chat with Basquiat is obviously the film’s centerpiece attraction, Davis also tracks down a dazzling array of old collaborators, friends, professional peers and the like for interviews, including Glenn O’Brien, Larry Gagosian, Fab 5 Freddy, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Jeffrey Deitch, Julian Schnabel, Annina Nosei, Kai Eric, Nicholas Taylor, Fred Hoffmann, Michael Holman, Diego Cortez, Kenny Scharf and ex-girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk, among many others.
The result achieves impressionistic definition if not complete chronological clarity, chronicling the meteoric rise and fall of an extremely young and in many ways unlikely artist. In the crime-ridden New York City of the late 1970s, Basquiat, along with friend Al Diaz, started covering the city
with abstract poetic graffiti verses, tagged with SAMO, a quasi-acronym standing for “Same Old Shit.” A buzz built, and in 1981 he put paint to canvas for the
first time, forming the “Downtown ’81” collective with some friends. In under a year he had his first formal show, for which he took home over $200,000 in a single night. Friendship and collaboration with Andy Warhol ensued, along with an array of other shows, but in 1988 Basquiat’s heroin addiction worsened, and he died
of an overdose at the age of 27.
However close Davis was to her subject — and portions of the film trade rather wanly on his undeniable charisma, as he’s a warm and inviting if still enigmatic subject who never truly lets down his guard — The Radiant Child makes a convincing case that Basquiat had, at the very least, a unique amalgam gift for translating the loose, jangly energy of the bohemian street into high art. Some of the details are arresting (Basquiat frequently painted to Ravell’s “Bolero,” which certainly seems to inform the energy of his lines and color choices), and certainly the biographical details about his mother’s bouts of mental instability and accountant father’s emotional distance color an understanding of the man behind the art.
Still, there are some interesting and provocative ideas that Davis never fully explores, as when ArtForum‘s Rene Ricard, whose laudatory profile piece from early in the artist’s career gives the film its title, talks about explicitly wanting to hitch his own wagon to an ascendant star in the art world. Putting this together with Basquiat’s well known and pronounced ambition, and penchant for knowing presentation of self, it’s not hard to see another side of the artist, irrespective of his talent, that The Radiant Child never tries to really shine a light on — that of a confused and overwhelmed but shrewdly calculating kid who had a huge investment in the material benefits of personal mythology.
In its very real intimacy, The Radiant Child achieves warmth, but Davis is not interested in paying the price of a deeper truth, in trying to peg the specifics of Basquiat’s descent into drug use, and those who might have enabled him. Such is the rub for documentaries that come from so close within an artist’s orbit. For more information, click here. (Arthouse Films/Curiously Bright Entertainment, unrated, 94 minutes)