Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Fine Art Documentary On An All Too Brief Brush With Greatness

Movie Review

Jean-Michael Basquiat: The Radiant Child
A documentary directed by Tamra Davis
Playing in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre

There's a great Bob Dylan song from 1989 called "Shooting Star." I don't know if it was written about anyone in particular, but after seeing Tamra Davis' informative new documentary about her friend, 1980s artistic wunderkind Jean-Michel Basquiet, I couldn't help recall Dylan's wistful refrain, "I saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of you."

Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born son of Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, became known on the New York art scene by the age of 20, earned considerable acclaim and money during his brief career, dated Madonna when he was more famous than her (although the movie doesn't delve into their relationship), befriended & collaborated with Andy Warhol and died from a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27.

Untitled (Skull), 1984
I did not know of Basquiat during his lifetime or for long thereafter (although he may be rightly considered the art world's last real superstar, I've been more familiar with his contemporary, Keith Haring, who died in 1990). I think I first came to know Basquiat's name when I read that Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich earned over $19 million when two Basquiat paintings that he owned were auctioned (one in 2002, one in 2008). Then last year, I saw some of Basquiat's art in an exhibition on Warhol at the Milwaukee Art Museum. His style might not be for everyone, but I enjoy it. With a look that remains uniquely his, Basquiat's art feels like a street-infused merging of Picasso, Chagall, Pollack, DeKooning and Twombly.

As such, when I saw that Chicago's great Music Box Theatre was running a new documentary called Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, I decided to check it out despite not yet having seen fellow artist Julian Schnabel's 1996 Basquiat biopic. Filmmaker Davis befriended Jean-Michel when had an exhibition in LA in 1983 and filmed an interview with him in Beverly Hills in 1986 that hasn't seen the light of day until now. But as Basquiat himself was soft-spoken and not tremendously revealing (keep in mind he was 25 at the time), fortunately much of the film is comprised of recent interviews with art dealers, collectors and friends of Basquiat, although not Madonna.

Sadly, in generic terms, Basquiat's story has a familiar arc; think Jimi Hendrix or any VH1 "Behind the Music" episode that features a rock star's death. He showed considerable talent at a young age, showcased originality & skill that took him to the top of his field, hang out with other famous people, had crises of conscience about his art, fame, etc., started abusing drugs and died too young from a heroin overdose.

While the documentary focuses more on Basquiat's life & career chronology than on his craft itself, Davis does a nice job showcasing a number of his works and her variety of interview subjects paint a good picture of Basquiat, who Wikipedia references as "the first painter of African descent to become an international art star."

The film is well-worth seeing, if simply for gaining an awareness of this talented artist (I'm not sure if it will run at the Music Box past tomorrow, but will eventually be on Netflix). For those curious about Basquiat's work, here are a few pieces I found online:
Boxer, 1982 (the one that Ulrich sold for $13.5 million in 2008)
In Italian, 1981
Untitled, 1981

Fallen Angel, 1981
Arroz con Pollo, 1981
Self-Portrait, 1982

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