The Jimi Hendrix of the East Village, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a rock star among 1980s painters and member of the exclusive "27 Club." Namely, that group of artists, like Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, who sought self-knowledge in their self-destruction and flamed out at 27.
Now considered one of the preeminent figures of 20th-century art, Basquiat is a movie star as well. He was the central figure of the punkumentary Downtown 81, sentimentalized as a Chaplinesque homeless man-child of Lower Manhattan at home everywhere because he really lived in his head. He was the subject of fellow painter Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, a mythologized portrait of the artist (played by Jeffrey Wright) as a cryptic shaman.
And now he's the centerpiece of Tamra Davis' Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a touching portrait that may not be the last word on the painter, but has facts and context to burn. Its prime appeal is its interviews with Basquiat, intimate and chatty, filmed in an L.A. hotel room.
Davis, a filmmaker (Guncrazy, Billy Madison) and television director (Everybody Hates Chris, Men in Trees), met Basquiat in 1983 when she worked at an L.A. art gallery. As friend to friend, in 1985 she shot interviews with him that reveal a playful, open, articulate figure who engages the camera and speaks candidly about his discomfort with being adopted by the art world as its pet. He resisted the noble savage tag. "They have this image of me as a monkey-man," he says without self-pity.
Davis complements this footage with talking-head interviews that include his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk, art dealers Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Annina Nosei, friends Diego Cortez, Fab 5 Freddy and Glenn O'Brien, and MoMA curator Ann Temkin.
Flush with images, splashy hieroglyphic paintings and bouncing to the bebop music he loved, The Radiant Child brings Basquiat and his work to exuberant life.
Radiant Child succeeds in evoking the high tide of the New Wave and graffiti movement that took New York in the early 1980s. It is a cautionary tale about how unprepared Basquiat, a middle-class kid from Brooklyn, was in his ability to handle the celebrity, money, and hangers-on that poured down like a driving rain.
Like most Basquiatiana, Radiant Child touches only briefly on his upbringing. Details about his mother's struggles with mental health and his father's, reputedly, with alcohol, might have helped contextualize Basquiat's drug drama as well as his filial relationship with Andy Warhol.
Despite this, among his film portraitists, Davis does the most thorough job of capturing Basquiat, man, artist, and life force.