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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Song for the Genius Child
by Donald Levit

Jean-Michel Basquiat has grown to legend like many another pop culture icon who died so young. Famous and fashionable in the ‘80s club scene as well as that of high-rolling international connoisseurship, the graffiti artist become jet-set star is reckoned by some as among the most influential artists of the half-century, and his frantic output -- over two thousand additional paintings and drawings were left behind -- today commands mega-money. Artist friend Julian Schnabel wrote and directed the dramatized 1996 Basquiat, and this year art-circles friend Tamra Davis released documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.

Her eighty-eight minutes is an interesting contrast-twin to Michael Sladek’s just-out non-fiction, Con Artist, about fallen-from-grace Mark Kostabi, a commercial self-promoter who once shared the lucrative post-Pop East Village, Los Angeles, and European art markets with Warhol, Keith Haring, Italy’s 3 C’s, Joseph Beuys, Jean Dubuffet, and Basquiat. Because of Kostabi’s grating personality and his talent or lack thereof, detractors concentrate on his being fame-hungry huckster more than painter. Decrying Warhol’s influence, there are those who say the same about that Factory man, too; but, while not resolving the break between for-a-while inseparable buddies and collaborators Warhol and Basquiat, merely breathing that each may have felt himself used by the other, Davis’ take sees no warts on her subject, only skin splotches from massive opiate, cocaine and heroin intake.

Neither this non-fiction nor Schnabel’s début digs deep, possibly because their manchild was reticent to the point of signing only acronym SAMO to the early attention-catching graffiti. Interviewed live-in girlfriends and a rash of in-group club-hopping to the contrary, he was lonely, and what a head calls “the hazards of sudden fame” led him to move his studio to Crosby Street for peace within which to work and conjecturally also contributed to his late drug abuse for “concentration,” and to his deterioration and death at twenty-seven.

The centerpiece is Davis’ filmed 1986 interview with the painter, conducted in the apartment of mutual friend Becky Johnston and “left in a drawer” thereafter. Informal and at ease, he answers questions from the two women against moline cross-patterned wallpaper made yellow by strong light. Unfortunately a major flaw is that the sound quality here, and pretty much throughout, is awful, and so much is lost. Attendees at other venues have voiced the same complaint, so clearly this has nothing to do with equipment at Harlem’s documentary Maysles Cinema. It actually turns out a relief when a couple of the interviewees are unaccountably but thankfully subtitled, even if the print -- and also that identifying people and paintings -- is quick and reader-unfriendly.

Showing a wealth of the subject’s work, and juxtaposing it to that of indisputable modern giants, like him the film is polymorphous in constant movement, like the be-bop, cool, and hard-bop played (along with TV) while he worked, along with loops of Ravel’s Bolero which drove to distraction gallery owner-patron Annina Mosei.

Neorican mother Matilde was in and out of psychiatric treatment, and the relationship with Haitian father Gerald lacks warm encouragement. Having run away a few times, at seventeen Jean-Michel leaves the Brooklyn home for good, to scrounge a living with others also searching in the dangerous but free and creative streets of lower Manhattan. The accoutrements of fame and money which were to come, are not dwelt on or long enjoyed, when he could stock expensive wines, leave delicacies around to go bad, and, as in a newspaper photo for Maysles, paint barefoot in Armani suits. Earlier attempts at a band -- Gray, after the Gray’s Anatomy his mother had given him -- came to nothing, and shaved or Mohawk hairdos gave way to his trademark upreaching, uncared-for dreadlocks.

The cognoscenti who comment are poorly identified, and their high-toned assessments rather empty. What may convince viewers of the quality of the art and the genius of its creator, “doing late work at an early age” -- or leave them cold -- is the barrage of so many paintings, flashing each briefly before the eyes.

There is some commentary on the reasons for, the implications of, this or that. But the surface of the man is what is seen, so much so that when the race issue is brought up near the end -- his impishly smiled “like an ape?” is double-barbed -- it comes as a surprise, however much outside knowledge should have anticipated it. The oeuvre itself, and not the “sad but so sweet man,” is left to speak, suggestive and complex “but I’ll give you a few hints.” 

(Released by Arthouse Films and New Video Group; not rated by MPAA.)

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