Thursday, January 13, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child"

I doubt that Jean-Michel Basquiat would have endorsed the subtitle. Indeed, The Radiant Child seems to inflate the very cliché that the rest of this film is keen to refute. Far from naive, radiantly or otherwise, his paintings are filled with sophisticated cultural references, both pop and classic, a fact that the established art world came to appreciate only after his death. Still, that titular misstep aside, Tamra Davis’s documentary does serve as a worthy companion to Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic.

Inevitably, both films trace the same tragic arc. Like many of the bebop musicians and Beat writers he admired, Basquiat lived fast, worked faster and died young from the demon dope. Unlike them, he did so in the New York of the eighties when a different demon was beginning its rise – the cult of celebrity. A black artist among the white-wine galleries, Basquiat actively courted celebrity, benefiting from its instant glow and suffering from its racist stereotyping. But ultimately, as Schnabel bluntly laments: “He didn’t have the tools to navigate that sea.”

Beyond this now-familiar narrative and the usual gaggle of talking heads, Davis draws heavily on a rich supply of archival footage culled from the era. It’s in these resurrected archives that the film, and its subject, most come alive – shots of the teenage Basquiat appearing with his head shaved on a local public-access channel; of the maturing artist attacking his canvas like a jazz soloist; of the rich celebrity shoulder to shoulder with Warhol, those black dreads bizarrely collaborating with that platinum wig.

Then, prematurely old at 27, with nearly 1,000 paintings and more drawings behind him, he rolled off the bed and onto the floor, his lifeless body making way for the growing legend. Of course, in the self-fulfilling prophecy of the tortured artist, that too is a cliché – sad, yes; radiant, no.

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