(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 rebeccanemser.com