A Look Back at Films on the Restless Creative Mind and Tragic Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lead Photo: Photo by William Coupon/CORBIS
Photo by William Coupon/CORBIS
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With Manhattan real estate effectively in the hands of shady foreign magnates, and Brooklyn property values suited more for six-figure professionals than the scrappy working class, it’s easy to forget that New York was not too long ago a hotbed of Bohemian punk rock counterculture that brought the world a singular crop of artists and musicians in the late 70s and 80s. Among the most emblematic figures of this downtown effervescence was undoubtedly Jean-Michel Basquiat: a half-Haitian, half-Boricua Brooklyn street kid who rapidly became the toast of the 1980s New York art world when he was “discovered” by gallerists and art journalists.

But beyond his unlikely Cinderella story, Basquiat was a restless creative mind who found himself caught up in the arbitrary fads of the self-important gallery set and was ultimately consumed by his own demons. Now whether or not you believe that the young graffiti artist-turned-Neo-expressionist painter was truly a modern genius, or just an overhyped victim of disposable celebrity culture, we can all agree that his story is the stuff screenwriters wish they could dream about. There’s his troubled childhood in Brooklyn and San Juan, his time as a runaway bumming around Tompkins Square Park, his DIY artistic statement scrawled on public walls across the city in the form of the SAMO tag (a collaboration with Al Diaz), and of course, his rapid ascent into the upper echelons of Manhattan high culture culminating in his friendship with Andy Warhol.

So naturally, there have been a couple of worthy attempts to bring his quintessential New York story to the screen. The first and perhaps most well-known of these was a 1996 biopic appropriately titled Basquiat, directed by fellow downtown scenester and visual artist Julian Schnabel. Apparently the film’s producers had approached Schnabel while researching for the screenplay, and Schnabel decided that due to his personal connection with Basquiat, he could direct the project better than anyone else.

The film introduced the world to actor Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, with a star-studded supporting cast that included David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and of course, an early show-stealing turn by Benicio del Toro as Basquiat’s fictional Puerto Rican BFF Benny Dalmau. The film was generally well-received, and many critics were pleased that Schnabel’s transition from visual art to filmmaking wasn’t a total fiasco as it had been in other high-profile cases, but much criticism focused on the fact that Schnabel seemed to use Basquiat’s life story as a chance to toot his own biographical horn.

Indeed, Schnabel featured much of his own artwork in the film, and even actor Jeffrey Wright expressed disappointment with the way his performance was edited, accusing Schnabel of appropriating Basquiat’s story and “aggrandizing himself through Basquiat’s memory.” Nevertheless, Wright garnered almost universal critical praise for his performance, while del Toro and David Bowie were also noted for their electricity on the screen.

Over a decade later, in 2010, another filmmaker and old friend of Basquiat’s by the name of Tamra Davis dug up a rare interview she had conducted with the artist before his death by drug overdose in 1988. Filling out her footage with interviews with Julian Schnabel, gallerist Larry Gagosian, art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, and a handful of downtown artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child attempts to penetrate some of the mystery surrounding Basquiat’s persona, while using his story as a microcosm of the downtown art scene from which he emerged.

The film’s original 20-minute interview with Basquiat premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, while the film was later re-edited as a feature to incorporate the additional interviews.

Photo: AP/Brooklyn Museum, Lizzy Himmel
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And, finally, there’s Basquiat’s own mythical turn as the star of the 1981 experimental film, Downtown 81. We say mythical because the film wasn’t actually released until it premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, with the project abandoned for over 15 years due to financial trouble. Written and produced by Glenn O’Brien, Downtown 81 was directed by Swiss photographer Edo Bertoglio, and follows Basquiat as he dramatizes the more or less autobiographical struggles of a New York artist trying to sell paintings around the city to avoid being evicted from his apartment.

At the time of shooting, Basquiat was actually homeless and slept in the production office, and O’Brien ended up providing Basquiat with canvases so he could make the paintings featured in the film. Throughout the loping, freeflowing narrative, Basquiat’s character runs into a veritable who’s who of downtown scenesters, including Lee Quiñones, Fab Five Freddy, and Debbie Harry as a bag lady who turns into a princess when kissed (and gives his character money to pay the rent). Life further imitated art when Harry and her boyfriend Chris Stein of Blondie bought one of his paintings for $200 after the shoot wrapped.

Unfortunately, in the two decades that passed between shooting and the film’s post-production, the dialogue track was lost, so the production brought on rapper, actor, and poet Saul Williams to dub over Basquiat’s performance. The final product was hailed by critics as a remarkable document of the dynamic and nonconformist New York art scene of the day, with Basquiat himself praised for his charisma and natural demeanor in front of the camera.