Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

     I saw this one yesterday, but don't want to write too much about it because I don't know that much about either Basquiat's life (so I can't really tell if it covers all sides of his story) or about documentaries in general. Sure I've seen Taxi to the Dark Side and Grisly Man and what have you, but The Radiant Child is more standard fare, more like something you would catch on TV than something to see in theaters. 
     That said, I quite enjoyed the movie, and I'm going to say that it does a pretty thorough job taking us through Basquiat's meteoric rise to fame and subsequent excesses (resulting in death at the age of 27). It was made by Tamra Davis, a former friend of Basquiat's who had an interview she did with him sitting around in a drawer for 20 years before she decided to take it out and expand it into a feature film. 
     Unfortunately, that interview is relatively insubstantial; Basquiat remains slightly aloof and distant throughout and there are only a few minutes of footage. In fact, there's not all that much of any footage of Basquiat himself in the movie, but this is partly compensated for by a large array of interviews with friends, girlfriends, fellow artists, critics, and connoisseurs of various sorts. All of these are woven together quite skillfully with archival footage and music. Well, that's pretty much the definition of any documentary, but Davis, a former music video director, seems to have a knack for it, and the result is a very fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing film.
      I've seen reviews calling it fawning, but I found it to be pretty balanced, even if it did seem to call out the elitism of the art world as something contributing to Basquiat's death. According to Davis, it was the inability to be accepted and taken by critics that lead to his death. The criticism of his work with Andy Warhol, his best friend, seemed to really shake him and Warhol's death soon after pushed him over the edge. 
     Some today might still call Basquiat's work overrated, the paintings' value defined by his public image rather than by their content. If this film does anything, however, it's to prove that theory wrong. Basquiat made about 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings in his extremely short career, and the many works that make it into the film convey an undeniable energy. They're confrontational, challenging, funny, and even beautiful. I would have said primal too, but i won't repeat the mistake of the white reporter in the movie who gets a mocking response in return; "you mean like an ape? A primate?" It's one of the few examples of footage of Basquiat in the movie that shows his humor and charisma ( a brief search of Youtube doesn't reveal that much more anyways), but even if we don't have that much of the man, the work more than speaks for itself. 7.1

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