NZIFF ’10: Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child

nziff ’10: Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child
Dir. Tamra Davis | USA/Germany | 2009 | 88 mins.

The New York artist Jean-Michel Basquait had a stratospheric rise to prominence in the early 1980s, and just as quickly faded out before his death, at only 27, of a heroin overdose. Tamra Davis, a friend of Basquiat’s during the ’80s, has made a lovingly-crafted tribute to the artist that is as complex and dense as the best of his works. Opening and closing with a poem by Langston Hughes—from which derives the film’s subtitle—the film tracks Basquait’s career and the many pitfalls he encountered along the way to fame, the nastiest of which being the not-too-thinly-veiled racism directed at him because he was black (his mother was Puerto Rican, his father Haitan). He began his artistic life on the Lower East Side at the tail end of the ’70s by graffiti-ing under the moniker “samo”—for “same-old shit.”

By 1983, not even four years later, he had become best friends with Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry, and had made millions of dollars from his art. He rose to fame in an era when the minimalist and conceptual art of the ’70s was still popular: his post-modern and neo-expressionist work wasn’t recognised for the genius it contained. Interview subjects include art commentators, academics, art collectors, musicians and friends—and fellow artists such as Julian Schnabel, whose 1996 biopic Basqiuat, starring David Bowie and, in the title role, the wonderful Jeffrey Wright, is, while flawed, a great film. The film’s most interesting element is the interview footage Davis shot of Basquiat two years before his death, which she uses to beautifully illuminate his intricate creations and all-too-short life.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child may screen at Rialto and similar cinemas but will most likely be relegated to DVD sometime next year.