An international art star by the age of 23 and dead from a heroin overdose at 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat was drawn, in the words of one curator, to “the romance of the person whose life is so intense, it’s more than he can bear.” In her elegiac tribute, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Tamra Davis, who became friends with the painter in 1983, mercifully avoids much of the gassy nostalgia that typifies documentaries made about artists in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s; only one interviewee gushes that “everybody did everything then.” Instead of the platitudes and fatuous art-world rhetoric that defined the 1996 biopic Basquiat by Julian Schnabel (a blustery talking head here), Davis focuses on fascinating specifics. Biographical minutiae (as he was recovering from a car accident at age six, Basquiat’s mother bought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which influenced his early work) and articulate assessments from friends, former girlfriends, art historians, and gallerists illuminate the life and work of the man who took, in the words of Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, “all the street energies and translated them into high art.”
Centering her film around an interview she shot of the then-25-year-old Basquiat in 1985, Davis (the director of 1992’s Guncrazy remake and the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads) uses that footage to provide emotional heft. “I was determined not to go home again,” the artist—beautiful, slightly bemused—and incorrigible teenage runaway said then, referring to his definitive break, at age 17, from his family’s Boerum Hill brownstone. Forgoing middle-class comfort, he slept in Washington Square Park, gained graffiti notoriety as SAMO (a truncation of “same old shit”), made frequent appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s public-access TV Party, and danced all night at the Mudd Club.
“He had no qualms about being ambitious,” recalls one of Basquiat’s assistants, and Davis thoroughly covers all the effects of that ferocious drive—both the highs (painting on almost any surface imaginable, including detritus like windows and refrigerator doors salvaged from the streets) and the lows (the moodiness that led Leo Castelli to tell dealer Bruno Bischofberger, “I think I’m too old to deal with such a difficult artist”).
Radiant Child is by no means flawless: The production values of the recent interviews are erratic at best (the audio is particularly crummy), and Davis unwisely chooses to go in front of the camera on occasion, reminiscing unhelpfully about eating Chinese food with Basquiat at the top of Mulholland Drive. But her homage—tender, never hagiographic—also contains some biting analysis of the racism, both overt and insidious, that the artist was up against. “They have this image of me as a wild monkey-man,” Basquiat said to Davis in 1985—the same year he was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, barefoot in Armani finery, like a noble savage.