Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Dir: Tamra Davis
Celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat worked in exploded forms, rendering the world as he saw it a messy, crude, colorful and utterly complex palimpsest of bodies, signs and cultural moods. He created art for the masses — high art, graffiti art, pop art, revolutionary and radiant and challenging art. Basquiat’s was the kind of work that baffled conventional sensibility, frightened classical mentality and thrilled the avant-garde; and in a new and completely riveting documentary portrait of the young artist, filmmaker Tamra Davis effects a history that is as intimate as it is inspiring, educational and artistically fantastic in its own right.
Davis’ documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, is a thing of characteristic beauty, imbued with the artist’s greatest influences and woven together with refreshingly insightful and (mostly) unpretentious commentary. Rendered immediately poignant by the opening frame — that of a bashful Basquiat settling in to speak with Davis, exuding equal parts charisma and innocence and already a mere two years yet for this world — the film captures our sympathy at the outset. But if our attention is at first demanded by virtue of Basquiat’s tragically brief career, it is soon thereafter earned, even intrigued, thanks to Davis’ skillful direction, arresting lineup of interviewees and, eventually, by our growing understanding of Basquiat’s puzzling aesthetic.
A former gallery employee herself (she first met Basquiat at a showing of his work in Los Angeles), Davis handles the artistic element of her chosen story with subtle finesse, somehow teaching even those of us in the audience who know nothing about modern art the significance and power of Basquiat’s vision. Within a context that seems made to elude conventional understanding, Basquiat’s art – rooted in the cartoons he first drew as a child, the copy of Gray’s Anatomy he read while recovering from an accident as a young boy, the fine art his mother exposed him to as a youth and the provocative, linguistically-sophisticated “SAMO” graffiti that launched his career – is built from widely relatable sources. And with the assistance of commentators ranging from Basquiat’s first patron, the regal Annina Nosei, to his first serious girlfriend and supporter Suzanne Mallouk, to hip-hop pioneer and fellow artist Fab 5 Freddy, Davis teaches us (without ever slipping into didacticism) how to see these sources – and thereby appreciate Basquiat more deeply than his pop star status at first suggests possible.
Near the end of the film, one older and decidedly un-hip critic nails the essence of Basquiat’s legacy in the simplest of terms: “His paintings were deliberate enigmas…they, in effect, said, ‘Get with it! See the complexity of our culture. I’ll give you a few hints.'” These “hints” — Basquiat’s staggeringly vast production, including over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings completed before his death at the age of 27– have since earned a place in the annals of art history, paying homage to and conversing with the masters of the genre and influencing an enormous body of critical and creative work in their wake. Seen in a museum or private gallery, Basquiat’s work is, at the very least, arresting; seen through Tamra Davis’ lens, and within the context of his rock star-like rise to fame and pop cultural prominence, his work becomes a tool for re-assessing and understanding culture, history, politics and pop art — one that forces us to view our world afresh in all its wild, colorful, crazy mixed-up glory.