Julian Schnabel’s bio-pic, “Basquiat,” on the late New York based artist Jean- Michel Basquiat is a breath of fresh air. The creation of a work of art may not always make for the most interesting subject matter for a film. The creation of the artist may be just as uninteresting if not done properly, but where others have failed, Schnabel has succeeded.
Schnabel’s film portrays the short but productive life of Basquiat, a young twenty-something living in New York City, roaming the streets all day and night spray painting his alias SAMO, pronounced ‘Saymo,’ on the walls of local buildings. He would also do graffiti art on the walls, painting rather macabre images of African tribal masks, totem polls, anatomy and random words all through out the picture which he would then turn into postcards to give out to random people throughout the city.
One of these people ends up being Andy Warhol. Meeting Warhol is a turning point for Basquiat. Warhol got his name out in the art community, followed by a friendship and many collaborative art pieces. Basquiat then goes to a rather prominent art dealer’s party where he defaces a picture by drawing over it, leaving his own unique stamp on it. The dealer is blown away by what he sees and offers to get Basquiat his own art space so that he can create art on his own time and his own terms. His vision comes full circle and he creates some of the best work of his career, displaye in a solo show shortly there-after. People are buy his paintings left and right. He becomes an overnight sensation in the art world and develops a friendship with Warhol that takes him to the last part of his career. Unfortunately he becomes addicted to heroin and eventually dies at the age of twenty- eight.
Some would look at the plot to the movie as being mundane, but it never becomes that because of the expert direction that Schnabel brings to the film. Schnabel is a New York artist himself so he knows how to approach the subject matter properly without “hamming it up” and making it sentimental. He said in an interview once that he wanted to take the mysticism out of creating art, and that he wanted to show Basquiat’s process and how he would make his works. This is done in a very smooth and easy to follow manner so that the viewer isn’t confused as to what is happening on screen.
The performance by Jeffery Wright, who plays Basquiat, is pitch perfect and he is backed by a wonderful supporting cast such as David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Gary Oldman who plays a facsimile of Schnabel, as well as Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, and Christopher Walken in a small but wonderful part as a reporter who interviews Basquiat for an art magazine. All these actors do some of the best work of their careers with Wright being the obvious standout as the eccentric artist.
The movie came out in 1996 so the relevance may not be as obvious in this day and time but upon watching it again after the inauguration of President Barack Obama I discovered what that relevance is. We can now move back into the age of personal artistic expression as opposed to the political art works that had been dominating the past eight years under the Bush administration. Political art is not bad, but it gets old after awhile so seeing a film about an artist who expressed himself so uniquely is a breath of fresh air that makes this film worth having to track down at your local video store – or putting it on your netflix queue.