Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
When I think of the films of Tamra Davis, a smile comes to my face. I think of the giggly afternoons spent with my college roommates watching such treasures as Billy Madison and Half Baked while ingesting whatever substance struck our fancy. I was impressed that these offbeat, halfwit, male-centric movies actually came from the mind of a woman, and I found something delightfully subversive about that. These were characters we all knew; they were the terribly lovable yet completely idiotic manboy friends who were aimlessly wondering the world anxiously awaiting the next "nudie magazine day." My friends and I loved these lighthearted films for all their fluff and they've certainly become a part of our pop culture history.
Not long ago I found out that Davis was set to release a documentary. Although it seemed a bit out of character, being a fan, I had faith. Then I found out what the documentary was about: Jean-Michel Basquiat. O.M.G. If you're familiar with Basquiat's work, chances are you're obsessed with it. Basquiat is one of the most iconic and influential artists of the modern art movement. His work is incredibly cerebral and spans the scope of subject matter from poverty to racism to fame, and far beyond. Billy Madison was a movie about a guy who couldn't spell the word couch. I wasn't seeing the correlation.
Needless to say, I was blown away. The film starts off with a musical collage featuring some of Jean-Michel's work, inter-cut with footage of him painting. Rare images and reproductions of his artwork run a steady line throughout the film, providing the foundation for the story that unfolds, and at the center of the film is a very raw, very jagged interview with Jean-Michel taken about a year before his death in 1986.
Heavy hitters such as Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Fab 5 Freddy (yes!), and Rene Ricard all make an appearance. Each one of them gives an incredibly honest and personal account of their relationship with Jean-Michel. However, the most heartfelt, and perhaps honest, interview is that of Suzanne Mallouk, Jean-Michel's long-time lover and most ardent supporter.
While the men interviewed paint an accurate picture of what Basquiat's work represented, and what his presence meant, Suzanne is able to provide the best portrait of who he was, not only as an artist, but as a man. Her anecdotes are the most poignant, and most defining moments in the film. There have been endless books, articles, and news stories written about Basquiat's artistic influence or infamous life, but hearing hearing stories from someone who truly loved him is beautiful.
As I left the theater, I thought about my initial reaction to Tamra Davis' release of this seminal Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary, and realized it made perfect sense. This is a portrait of an man who was lovable, mild mannered, sometimes idiotic, and ultimately brilliant. It's about a man wondering the world, looking for inspiration and the next step toward infamy, and this is the kind of story Tamra Davis tells best.