Grade: B+Basquiat (1996)

Director: Julian Schnabel

Stars: Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: R

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Schnabel: Basquiat


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"No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh."

—Rene Ricard



After seeing an enjoyable but rather weak Starry Night recently, I was inspired to go through my video collection to find a companion film about an artist or about creativity, so I decided to revisit Basquiat again. This genre of films is currently very popular as newly released or soon to be released movies like Quills, Goya en Burdeos, and Finding Forrester attest.

Films about artists and creativity are often difficult to pull off successfully, as evidenced by a host of mediocre films about Van Gogh and 1995's Total Eclipse about poet Arthur Rimbaud. On the other hand, we have the astonishing Amadeus at the top of the heap that captures Mozart’s spirit and enthralls us at the same time and a rather well done biopic of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. Does that mean that films about musical geniuses are more successful than other artists—is it easier to communicate auditory creativity on film?

I don't think so, since film is such a visual medium. While Basquiat is no Amadeus, it’s still well-done, especially considering that this is director Julian Schnabel's first major film project. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a real artist—a friend of Andy Warhol and talented icon of New York's SoHo district—who died far too young of a heroin overdose in 1988.

Actually, if anyone can capture the spirit of a creative artist, Schnabel is a logical choice, since he had been better known as a contemporary fellow artist of Basquiat's until this film and his current Before Night Falls. Schnabel’s first New York gallery showing took place in 1979, which marks the year that Basquiat begins. Its opening sequence depicts a childhood moment in front of Picasso's "Guernica" with his mother.

We find Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) sleeping in his self-made cardboard shelter in the East Village's Tompkins Square Park, and soon realize that this is no ordinary homeless person, although it is well into the film before we realize that Jean-Michel has walked away from a middle class existence. Jean-Michel marches to a different drummer—he imagines sky-surfing over Manhattan, writes creative graffiti by his pen name of SAMO, draws images in maple syrup on diner tables, and makes prank calls to suicide hotlines.

Struggling artists typically encounter relationship challenges, and we see glimpses throughout the episodic film. Jean-Michel begins a relationship with diner waitress and artist wannabe Gina (Claire Forlani), only to sabotage it with an affair with Big Pink (Courtney Love). He even leaves his best friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro) behind after gaining fame and fortune. In the beginning we see Benny accept his homeless friend unconditionally, taking him in whenever the rain soaks through his cardboard shelter, while later Benny picks him up off the street after Basquiat has landed back in the gutter after his 15 minutes of fame has elapsed.

Another scene that demonstrates Basquiat's fickleness has Jean-Michel giving writer and art afficionado Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) a painting and later selling it to art buyer and Warhol confidant Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper) during his opening show. Of course, it is a calculated move and the filmmaker allows us to see Basquiat's quandary before he rejects the man who brought him his initial break into New York's art crowd, showing us that Basquiat's dreams of fame outweigh any feelings of loyalty—and foreshadowing other eventual relationship problems.

True to life, Basquiat does join Andy Warhol's (David Bowie's) entourage, becomes friends with him, and begins to enjoy the fame and money this brings. As expected they have a falling out due to some media story that isn't fully developed here, but both die far too young.

Despite some shortcomings with jumpy transitions and unexplained holes in the script, Basquiat has much to recommend it. While I would like the film to get more inside Basquiat's head to understand how his creative mind works, the snatches that show Basquiat imagining a surfer in the Manhattan skyline, writing his cryptic SAMO graffiti scrawlings, and pondering his paint placements begin to give us a portrait of the artist. The scene that communicates the greatest amount of creative vision is the excellent interchange between Basquiat and Warhol about the Amoco oil painting. It's refreshing to see pop art legend Warhol acknowledge that Basquiat's extra swatch of white across the horse improves his painting.

In fact, all the scenes with the enigmatic Warhol work very well, largely due to the sensitive portrayal by Bowie. I only saw Warhol once at a lecture series (or perhaps it was his double since you never knew if the real Warhol would show up), and both Bowie and Jared Harris (I Shot Andy Warhol) capture Warhol's eccentric persona well. Even though he’s portraying the aloof pop artist, Bowie infuses a sense of genuine caring into the role and we can understand Basquiat's grief and tears as he reviews his home movie of Warhol footage.

The film absolutely couldn't work without Jeffrey Wright. It's an amazing performance, shifting from a homeless punk to an edgy artist who can still charm the elite. Wright is so real in the role you have to think that he's spent some time on the New York City streets as a homeless guy or spent hours there as a method actor. You can't beat his response to Courtney Love's question of how can she thank him: "Can I squeeze your titties?" Wright is at his best when interacting with the numerous great actors who lend small parts and cameos to the independent film.

Playing an important role is Gary Oldman as artist Arthur Milo, the everyman actor who this time portrays a thinly disguised Julian Schnabel. While some criticize director Schnabel for displaying his own art in Oldman's scenes and using his own daughter in a cameo, I see nothing wrong with that. After all, Schnabel was part of the Warhol-Basquiat art scene, and why not use your own resources? It fits into the budget better.

For cameos there's the incredible Dennis Hopper, Tatum O'Neal, and Willem Dafoe as the electrician/wannabe artist who says that he's glad he never got the recognition because, "It gives me time to develop." Most notable is Christopher Walken's incredible interview scene that brings out the "real" Basquiat by talking about his parents and confronting him with the idea that some refer to him as the "pickaninny of the art world."

Related to that is another scene that I really love in the fancy restaurant when the now rich and famous Basquiat meets his former girlfriend. He is obviously not dressed for the restaurant, but is well known to the staff as a proper big spender. Behind him a group of suited businessmen are pointedly gossiping about the "intruder" to the classy place, so Basquiat finds a way to let these snobs realize that the raggedy looking black man isn't hurting for money.

Granted, Basquiat is an uneven film that won't satisfy everyone, but it certainly gives a valuable introduction to an important artist who represents the golden crown that we see in the opening scene. Just as the people can't see where the beautiful music originates, we don't get the full picture of Basquiat's life and works through this biographical film. But what we do get helps us appreciate the man’s work, gives us a glimpse into the nature of creativity, and helps us appreciate the humanity of the next homeless person we see. After all, would we want to reject the next Van Gogh?

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