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MOVIE REVIEW: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

New York artist's story rates high for tough SanDiego.com critic

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: Rates a A-.
Courtesy photo

Sometimes my favorite bio-pics or documentaries involve people I know very little about.

I loved La Vie En Rose (Edith Piaf), and I really enjoyed Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.

I missed the first 15 minutes as I was running late from another movie screening (and I assumed there’d be 15 minutes worth of commercials and trailers; there were none).

I’m going back in a few days to see the first 15 minutes and bringing a few of my friends to experience this interesting story.

I think this documentary sugar-coated some negative stuff Basquiat did. It certainly didn’t show any of the drugs that probably went down in the club scene during that explosive time in New York City.

I don’t mind that writer/director Tamra Davis (married to a Beastie Boy; both also comment in the film) wanted this to be a love letter to a talented and troubled artist. It was still very interesting and informative.

I enjoyed this more than the other two art documentaries I’ve seen this year (The Art of the Steal and Exit Through the Gift Shop).

Exit Through the Gift Shop dealt with an artist I think is more talented than Basquiat; and like him, started out as a street/graffiti artist.

Basquiat’s style reminded me a lot of Jackson Pollock. He didn’t just thrown random paints on a canvas and have the art world claim he was a genius (although he got to the genius status a lot quicker than Pollock did).

There was a real method to his madness – from the way he’d have words incorporated into his art, things painted over, and often times a history of things that interested him. That could be African kings, athletes, and artists or authors he was fond of.

It was also interesting to see how he painted, and welcomed distractions. That could be friends over, in an Armani suit after a dinner, or as often was the case – with the TV and stereo blaring at the same time.

Blondie’s Debbie Harry bought one of his first paintings for $200 – and it was the most money he ever made (he promptly took a girlfriend to a Chinese restaurant, saying “Get whatever you want!”).

I’m guessing she could now sell the painting for $10 million easy (I read a few years ago about Metallica’s Lars Ulrich selling one for $7 million; and at an auction a few years ago, a Basquiat went for $14 million). Interesting numbers, considering he did a thousand paintings.

Another one of Basquiat’s early customers was Andy Warhol, who bought a few of the postcards he was selling on the street. It wouldn’t be long after that that they’d become fast friends.

The racial aspects of the film were interesting.

Basquiat made $200,000 at his first show, and went outside and couldn’t get a cab to stop for him.

He painted a black police officer, and titled it Irony of Negro Policeman, with a white mask and bars over his jumbled face.

One of the commentators talked about galleries before him as having, “white walls, with white people, drinking white wine.”

And when various artists and curators talked about Basquiat, I got a sense that there was a real neat camaraderie in the art circles that wasn’t as competitive as you’d think. Even though Basquiat joked about wanting to be the best, or getting into a boxing match with a fellow artist – it seemed to be in good fun.

I usually don’t have sympathy for people that get addicted to drugs and end up dying. He’s yet another talented person that joined the “27 club” (the age Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson, Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin all died).

But he had an abusive father (that some sources claim was an alcoholic), and he was a very sensitive soul. He didn’t take criticism well, and didn’t have a family he could talk to about bad reviews and other negatives.

Fame and fortune were thrust upon him, and he was ill-equipped to handle it.

After seeing hundreds of his paintings in this (one great scene shows various ones without any comment on them, just some Dizzy Gillespie playing in the background) – I am still not a fan of his style.

There was a self-portrait I liked, and one titled Big Shoes that was interesting. At his last gallery opening before his death, a great painting called Riding with the Devil.

It’s weird how subjective and insane the art world is. Basquiat at one point had a level of fame, and a few galleries still turned down a big painting he did. One gallery said it wasn’t worth the wall space, and she now says on film something like: All great art usually disturbs us at first, which is probably why I didn’t like it then. I realize now how brilliant he was and…

Yeah, right. The simple fact is, abstract art is a bizarre thing that’s open to interpretation and nobody can really probably analyze it. Obviously, it’s easier to see some talent in this Neo-expressionist style than the minimalist stuff you’d see in galleries in the 70s (a white canvas simply titled “White on White” for example).

It’s a shame that another talented guy died before his time – and in a manner that other artists had; without realize the world would soon be appreciating his work and preaching his genius.

I’m giving this an A-.