Judge Gordon Sullivan is part of the New York underground DVD review scene.
"Jean-Michel Basquiat first became famous for his art
For a long time now, New York City, especially Manhattan, has been a center of political and economic power in the United States. What's really fascinating about the city, though, is that in addition to supporting those with money and power, the city has long nurtured various underground groups who seem to be able to live in the city below the radar, forming coalitions, exchanging ideas, and reinforcing inspiration. It happened with the Beats in the 1950s, but my favorite flowering of New York underground culture was undoubtedly the period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This movement gave us no-wave, Sonic Youth, Deborah Harry, Madonna, and, finally, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. In New York at that moment, there was a fervent desire to create, and the medium was less important. Someone could easily be a dancer, a singer, a poet, and a filmmaker, and the cross-pollination between those different media resulted in fascinating bits of culture. This is the milieu that Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child tries to portray, using interview footage with Basquiat and his friends, along with archival footage, to show the rise and eventual fall of one of the art world's most daring painters and interesting personalities.
The Radiant Child uses filmmaker Tamra Davis' never-before-seen interview footage of Basquiat as its centerpiece, weaving interviews and archival footage around it. The film follows his trajectory from graffiti artist in the New York City arts scene, to his rise to multi-millionaire status and friendship with Andy Warhol, until his untimely death at the age of 27.
Radiant Child gets a number of things right. First, it does an excellent job evoking the heady atmosphere of Manhattan in the late 1970s, the world that Basquiat emerged from. Because everyone seemingly lived on the edge of poverty, risks were taken, friendships formed, and futures planned without fear of failure because the participants weren't that far from the bottom anyway. This "take-no-prisoners," "devil-may-care" attitude infected and influenced everyone in the scene, especially Basquiat. This portrayal of this atmosphere is helped by footage from the era, but is also aided by the film's second biggest strength: the interviews. Everyone from friend Julian Schnabel (who made the feature film Basquiat for his friend) to Fab 5 Freddy and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore weigh in on the scene, Basquiat, and his art. The interviews with Basquiat are especially telling, both those taken by director Tamra Davis and those culled from some of his media appearances. Basquiat is highly articulate, aware that he's created a media persona, and wary of revealing the man behind the curtain.
Finally, the film gets credit for featuring an extensive amount of Basquiat's work. Although much of it goes by too quickly, we see numerous canvases that illustrate just how radical Basquiat's conception of painting could be. The footage that's included of him creating is also a treat to see.
For all its strengths, Radiant Child makes a few missteps. It doesn't really mention drugs (the cause of Basquiat's early death) until almost an hour in to the film. There's limited discussion of how the drugs that were doubtlessly present in his social circle might have influenced his painting, and only slightly more discussion of why he started using heroin in the first place. I wouldn't expect the film to be a pro- or anti-drug film, but I did expect a little more on Basquiat's battles with substance abuse. Also, the film seems to succumb to some of the personality worship that Basquiat found so depressing. In an interview featured in the film Jean-Michel complains that many of the reviews of his show spend more time reviewing his personality than his painting. While no one could accuse Radiant Child of spending too little time on the paintings, I really wish that there had been more discussion of Basquiat's place in American painting. Sure, there's lots of discussion of how daring and original he is, even some discussion of how he's reacting against minimalism, but a more in-depth discussion of the where painting was at in the late '70s and early '80s would have been helpful.
As for the DVD, the Arthouse Films label has done it again. The Radiant Child is presented in a solid transfer that lets the color of Basquiat's paintings pop, and even the older video from vintage sources looks pretty good. The simple stereo mix keeps the talking heads audible and film's use of music is interesting. The lone substantial extra is a 30-minute interview with the film's director, Tamra Davis. She discusses her footage of and friendship with Basquiat, as well as how the film got made. The disc also includes the film's trailer
Jean-Michel Basquiat is a fine documentary on one of America's preeminent painters. Although some might complain that the film doesn't do enough to put the prodigy in his painterly context, the film otherwise does an excellent job of conjuring the New York City arts scene and its denizens. Recommended for those who love art, and especially those who teach it.
Like Basquiat, The Radiant Child is not guilty.
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