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Case Number 15586: Small Claims Court

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The Universe Of Keith Haring

Arthouse Films // 2008 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // January 31st, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Brett Cullum makes art for the people...but no one knows that, save for Yoko Ono.

The Charge

Art is for everyone!—Keith Haring

The Case

The Universe of Keith Haring is a flashy documentary about an artist who rose to fame in the '80s only to be struck down by AIDs far too early in his life. Even though Haring is no longer with us, almost 20 years later you see his work everywhere in major cities around the world. Prints appear in gift shops, on album covers, t-shirts, buttons, ad campaigns, and anything you can imagine a chunky silhouette slapped on for effect. He remains one of the most recognizable and important artists of the twentieth century. His unique legacy lives on. Hard to imagine he was only 31 when he passed away, and boggling to conceptualize how much work he could have produced had he lived a full life span. The Universe of Keith Haring has an easy time finding friends, family, and even the painter himself to talk about his life and work. The artist's era has been well documented thanks to a project started a year before his death in 1990. Keith Haring contracted journalist John Gruen to write his life story, and for this film portions of the audio and video from those sessions are utilized. More recent interviews with family members and associates fill in the rest of the story. Celebrity sessions include sit downs with rapper Fab 5 Freddy, David LaChapelle, Junior Vasquez, and Yoko Ono. We also get to see archival footage of Madonna, Grace Jones, and several art legends who seemed to gravitate around Haring's scene in New York City. Heck, even Andy Warhol makes an appearance or two.

Amazingly enough, The Universe of Keith Haring matches its subject's vitality and sense of style note for note. The film moves quickly with lots of techno music and rap to carry us along the swirling world of Keith Haring as he rises to worldwide fame. Before each interview we see the subject, and then there is a quick zoom into their eye. Each segment is cut quickly with the important statements highlighted and no fluff or rambling. We get to see the artist and his work in great detail, and there are so many genuinely stunning moments that make the documentary a pop art confection. The film starts with his days growing up in small town Pennsylvania where Haring was a paperboy with aspirations to draw cartoons. It traces his early days in Manhattan where he surrounded himself with other future artists of great importance such as Basquiat. All of this seems routine in a way, but the film truly takes off once we reach the parts where Keith's fame breaks loose. Haring was an amazing talent who had a generosity of spirit few could ever match. Once he was diagnosed with AIDs he set out to leave his stamp on the world with murals and even a shop in Soho to make sure common people and not just collectors got to see and own his work. He was furiously productive drawing on anything or anyone for that matter in a race against time to leave his indelible mark. It's a moving portrait of a guy who stayed upbeat and passionate even in the face of certain death.

DVD Verdict was sent a prerelease screener for this film, so it's hard to determine the final disc's quality and value of any extras. According to the site for Arthouse Films no supplements are listed, but hopefully they will at least include a still gallery of Haring's work. Most of the footage was produced within the last couple of years, so the transfer looks clean enough save for the grainy strange feel of the old film fragments culled from the vaults. Audio is clear which makes the dialogue easy to make out. All in all the feature itself is strong enough to carry a release, and it looks like that will be the case with this one. Pity that the producers couldn't include more of the incredible Gruen footage of Keith Haring talking frankly about his life. At least we could have seen more of the always crazy Yoko Ono talking about how she hears from Keith as a ghost.

Haring was a true artist for the people, and that is what makes The Universe of Keith Haring inspiring and unique. Few painters break through in to pop culture icons like the owlish nerdy guy who drew nondescript figures often in black and white. He married his talents with musicians and public spaces to create a world where art became a force in culture. T-shirts, buttons, subway placards, nothing was safe from his graffiti style scribblings nor any object considered too low. He carried chalk with him, and would just scrawl out something on a sidewalk if he felt the urge. In thirty-one short years the artist sealed his legacy, and formed bonds with the famous and influential. Yet perhaps his best relationship was with the world who embraced his unique visions as part of their landscape. Haring lives on, and he still inspires young artists who want to be hip and approachable simultaneously. The Universe of Keith Haring is a great way to celebrate that legacy, and showcases a wonderful look at a man who left his mark everywhere.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Arthouse Films
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb
• Haring.com

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