Basquiat is Julian Schnabel’s first feature. And it teaches its audience a few things about the American painter (Jeffrey Wright). Most people know nothing about him outside of him being in Blondie’s Rapture music video. Basquiat was a lot of things before making cameos in short films and being a visual genius himself. During the 1980s he was a graffiti artist who tagged his work with the name Samo. He would vandalize walls outside of the art galleries that he dreamed of being in. Schnabel shows that divide between street art and real art, doing so with a heavy hand.
Basquiat does adequately in depicting the binaries of Basquiat’s home in New York City. It also shows his corner of it in Manhattan. There he works at such a prodigious level that should put all of us to shame. However, it suffers from first feature-itis. It has its share of montages showing his meteoric rise to fame. Some of Schnabel’s visual and musical choices have not aged well neither. And yes, it depicts gentrified New York in all its slimy glory. But it equally glamorizes the city and the decade’s Bohemian side just that made me want to clean my bedroom.
The biopic also has its share of distractions. Schnabel lets us in on the tertiary people in New York City’s art scene and their innocuous conversations. One of these conversations involve Andy Warhol (David Bowie). He’s arguing about whether a certain border city is in New York or New Jersey. Bowie’s performance as Warhol is on the negative side of camp and does not sound like the Warhol I remember. Although I will concede that he does sarcasm like a tight rope walk. Schnabel does that more than it gives us real insight on Basquiat’s thoughts about the scene itself.
This movie is Schnabel before he was good, before he could push his surreal aesthetic in depicting great artists. There are traces of greatness here. Or perhaps he was just letting Basquiat and Warhol’s art speak for themselves. As actors, Wright and Bowie play around in these monumental canvases. Wright, specifically, changes his usually deeper voice whenever Basquiat is talking back to the uppity people around him. It makes for a great, unsettling contrast that makes us think of how much the artist was stewing. It is a depiction that shows promise from the film’s director and its underrated lead.
Basquiat plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as a part of the Art Cinema: Painters On Screen retrospective on Thursday May 17th at 6:30 PM with a talk from Curtis Talwst Santiago a Brookyln based artist before the screening.