I recently had occasion to re-watch Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. I first saw the film when it was released, back when I was a twenty-year old aspiring writer, bumming around the hip part of town looking for the way, looking for myself. In Basquiat, as depicted in the film, I saw a kind of revolutionary hero, who lived in extreme poverty like a saint, sleeping in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park and then writing cryptic, meaningful messages all over the city like a prophet.
On seeing the film again, twenty years later, I see how bad it really is. Although the cast is superb, and Jeffrey Wright gives an admirable performance as Basquiat, his characterization seems to focus only on his weakest aspects. He stutters constantly, as though always struggling to get the words out of his throat, not only in interviews but with everyone. He is hopelessly childish and self-absorbed, as though unaware of his environment. As the story progresses, this manifests more and more as selfishness and callousness. Finally, there is the artwork itself, which is mediocre at best.
I looked up the reviews of the film and saw that I wasn’t alone in my dislike of it. Art critic Brooks Adams said that Schnabel should have called the film “My Basquiat” since there was more of the director in the film than the subject himself. Schnabel was a contemporary of Basquiat in the New York art world of the 80s, and I later found out that Adams’ criticism was true by Schnabel’s own admission. He said he made the film because he thought he owed it to Jean-Michel to tell him how he saw things.
The interview with Schnabel comes from the 2010 documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child by Tamra Davis, which is the real subject of this post and also the film being recommended.
Linda Yablonsky in the New York Times called Davis’ film “a profoundly moving testament to an artist and to the gritty New York of the early ’80s.” Indeed it is, filled with awesome footage of the early punk and hip hop scenes, both of which Basquiat came out of, as well as the art world of downtown Manhattan. One failing of Schnabel’s biopic was that the 1990s NYC that appears in the film looks just like … 1990s NYC. The whole film has a grunge aesthetic that looks more like a Soul Asylum video than a portrait of early 80s New York. In contrast, Davis’ documentary shows you the real deal, and with great interviews with the people who were there, like the eternally cool (and apparently ageless) Fab Five Freddy.
The soundtrack to the film is top notch, and it ought to be since it was done by Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond aka Ad-Rock and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. It’s equal parts 70s and 80s jams which were part of the scene at the time, and older blues and bebop which Basquiat himself loved.
Then there are the paintings. In fairness to Schnabel, Basquiat’s estate would not give him permission to use his actual paintings in the film (which perhaps partly explains the less-than-flattering portrayal of its main character) and so they had to use imitations. When one sees the real paintings in Davis’ documentary, the contrast is apparent. Although I personally detest most modern art, I have to admit that there is indeed a vibrant power in many of Basquiat’s paintings. When you add the music and the footage of vintage NYC as background, they come across even better. I think I would rather watch this film than go to an exhibit of the paintings themselves.
But the biggest contrast between Basquiat and Radiant Child is the impression the viewer gets of the artist himself. In Schnabel’s film, he comes across as a confused, selfish prick whose appetite for fame and drugs ultimately get the best of him. In Davis’ film, through many interviews with friends and acquaintances, and through rare interviews with Jean-Michel himself, one gets a much different impression of an artist who, while certainly not without his flaws, comes across as warm and thoughtful.
In the context of the art/music/film scene of early 80s New York, there is one criticism of Basquiat that should be mentioned, however. In an interview in Celine Danhier’s super-awesome documentary about New York’s No Wave cinema Blank City, John Lurie has this to say:
“Jean-Michel Basquiat was this kid who slept on my floor. We used to have fun – and then he got really rich. And he, almost single-handedly, turned it into, ‘If you don’t have money, you’re not cool.’ Whereas before it was like, if you had money you weren’t cool. I hate him for that to this day, because that attitude ruined a lot of things.”
Maybe the truth of Basquiat is somewhere between Davis’ radiant child and Schnabel’s selfish prick – who knows? Regardless, he was right there in the center of the cultural and artistic and geographical moment that Mean Street Cinema is dedicated to, and so we give him his due. Even if he hadn’t become a world-famous painter who is now his own brand name, even if he didn’t play in a band at the legendary Mudd Club, even if he didn’t design the album sleeve for Rammellzee and K-Rob’s “Beat Bop” single, we’d still have to include him here for being the star of Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81.
Written and produced by Glenn O’Brien of public access TV Party fame, the film has two stars: Basquiat, and downtown Manhattan in 1981. The film is perhaps a little weak on plot, but this is made up for by how the fate of Basquiat’s character remarkably anticipates his own, going from obscure poverty to wealth and fame virtually overnight. The original audio tapes were lost, which necessitated having someone else provide the voice for Basquiat. That role is filled by poet Saul Williams, whose deep and cadenced voice is such a stark contrast to Jeffrey Wright’s in the Schnabel film. One wonders what could have been if a young Saul Williams had been cast in the role instead (though Wright’s voice is much more like the real Basquiat’s.)
Even for someone with no interest in Jean-Michel Basquiat, the film is worth seeing just for all the footage of New York in 1980 – especially the scenes of the young painter walking, canvas under arm, through a Lower East Side that looks like a bombed-out war zone. Similar footage can be seen in Jim Jarmusch’s first film Permanent Vacation, (review coming soon) although minus the figure of Basquiat. He was, however, also present in that film, in a way. As Jarmusch explains in an interview in Blank City, Basquiat was asleep on the floor of the apartment in which they filmed some of the scenes. He remained asleep during the filming, and so they had to pull his body to the side of the room so he wouldn’t be on camera.
Review by Joey Mook