Miramax Films

(Orig­i­nally published in Boston Maga­zine, circa 1996.)

Basquiat, a moving movie elegy for the beau­tiful, tormented, bril­liant painter Jean-Michel Basquiat — who died from drug-related causes in 1988 at the age of twenty-seven after scaling the heights of the art world — was written and directed by Basquiat’s friend and fellow-artist Julian Schn­abel, the pajama-clad painter whose immense broken-plate specials epit­o­mized the over-the-top art scene of the eighties. That scene is caught, skew­ered, and eulo­gized in the movie by a Fellini-like cast of art world monsters: the cura­tors, critics, collec­tors (one played by Dennis Hopper), dealers, groupies (one played by Courtney Love), and hangers-on in Basquiat’s orbit. David Bowie is eerily bril­liant as Andy Warhol, with his unearthly pallor and shock of white hair (the Andy Warhol Museum let Bowie borrow Andy’s actual wigs and clothes).

Basquait begins with a woman dressed in blue, holding the hand of her little son, alone in a stark blue room, gazing with rapture at Picasso’s Guer­nica at the Museum of Modern Art, then flashes forward to 1981, when Basquiat, now a graf­fiti artist, is spray painting scraps of poetry all over New York. Soon he is “discov­ered” first by art critic Rene Ricard, then by Andy Warhol, then by Mary Boone, and then by every­body else. Jeffrey Wright is absolutely amazing as Basquiat. He captures the yearning and anguish of the artist, and also the flashes of true bliss, as in a scene where Basquiat, graceful and confi­dent, paints a huge picture on a canvas on the floor, getting high on the sheer phys­ical plea­sure of making art.

His later descent into drugs, lone­li­ness, confu­sion and despair is truly tragic — you feel him pursued by the Furies of greed, racism, and disease, tracking him inex­orably down.

The movie is propelled by a fantastic sound­track (on Island), mostly from Basquiat’s own record collec­tion: the great Rolling Stones song “Waiting on a Friend”; an out-of-tune, depres­sive “The Near­ness of You” sung solo by Keith Richards; and songs by Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Psyche­delic Furs, and Tom Waits.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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