I finally saw Tamra Davis’ (wife of Beastie Boys Mike D, director of CB4) excellent Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary The Radiant Child last night. She takes a very thoughtful approach to documenting his short, explosive life but what really sets it apart is all the original (largely unseen) footage that makes up the bulk of the film. A private interview she shot while he was still alive weaves it’s way through the entire film and shows him at his most candid and comfortable. This first person perspective paints a much different picture than the wild, party-hopping, drug abuser he’s often portrayed as. It’s certanly a vast improvement over the poor attempt Julian Schnabel made trying to capture him with the terrible 1996 film Basquiat (no disrespect to the ultra-talented Jeffrey Wright). In terms of historical accuracy it’s going to be hard for anyone to top this effort and besides shining a spotlight on one of the last true geniuses the art world has seen it made me nostalgic for a New York that no longer exists and jealous that I never got to experience it.
I’ve been a huge fan of Basquiat’s work since I was first introduced to it and seeing his paintings in person at the excllent retrospective the Brooklyn Museum put together in 2005 only served to solidify that. I remember seeing a preserved wall piece of his on my way to the MoMA when I first moved here in 2001 and enjoying that unexpected find as much or more than anything I’d seen in the museum. It just made sense that his work was on the street. Another thing that The Radiant Child does very well is chronicling what adds up to the full career of an insanely talented painter condensed into 27 years (really 12 since he only started painting at 15). At his final public show respected art historians were describing the paintings as showing the maturity of late period work and comparing him to Picasso without any trace of hyperbole. Another funny thing that the film brings out is an older, very white, very square art writer, who Jean-Michel himself said understood his work better than anyone else , who pops up several times and really does a great job of framing JMB’s work in the proper context. I know it’s popular right now for rappers to throw his name around (another trend started by Jay-Z) but I think if you go back and look at his work it not only stands up as that of a great painter but has also grown in meaning with the weight of the cultural significance within the pieces and his own personal history. He was an artist people like my old man would always say things about like, “Looks a kid’s crayon drawing.” But one very astute observer in the film remarks that the mark of a true artist is one who works in an assured hand that cannot be duplicated. That is certainly true of Basquiat. I highly recommend anyone even remotely curious about his work (or who Jay-Z’s always talking about) to check this very well-made documentary. My only complaint would be that we got alot of JMB pal Fab 5 Freddy but no footage of the lengedary Rammellzee.