MyArtBroker Film Reviews: Basquiat (1996)
An artist-by-artist biopic directed by Julian Schnabel

An image of the poster for Basquiat (1996) by Julian Schnabel. It shows the artist, depicted in monochrome, walking the streets of New York against a red background.Image © IMDB / The film poster for “Basquiat” 1996
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Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat

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The 1996 biographical drama “Basquiat” marks the directorial debut of Julian Schnabel, who also penned its screenplay and contributed to the film’s soundtrack. Focused on the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a prominent American artist in the Postmodernist and Neo-Expressionist movements, the film holds the distinction of being the first cinematic portrayal of an American painter that is both written and directed by a fellow artist.

Chapter One: Cardboard Box

The movie opens with a child Basquiat being taken by his mother to an art museum, symbolically depicted through a long blue hallway. He is then confronted with Guernica by Pablo Picasso, which Basquiat himself admitted had a strong effect on him as a young boy. His mother begins crying -- a nod to her emotional instability -- but when she looks up, Jean-Michel is glowing in a neon crown atop his head. This is the first instance of Schnabel’s literal approach to Basquiat’s symbolism.

The movie in earnest begins in 1982, making a connection between Basquiat and van Gogh – both misunderstood geniuses, and largely ignored by contemporaries (I imagine Schnabel is, at this point, only mentioning the years before Basquiat’s massive breakthrough in 1984). Basquiat, played by Jeffrey Wright, is shown living in a cardboard box before scribbling on a public fountain with the unmistakable SAMO tag that brought him fame.

Source © Youtube / Trailer for the film Basquiat (1996), directed by Julian Schnabel.

Chapter Two: New York Grit

A series of surrealist images follow as Basquiat graffitis his way through New York City –  many phrases borrowed from actual SAMO lingo. The film then shows a fictional meet-and-greet between Basquiat and his girlfriend Suzanne Malouk, re-named Gina in the biopic. A second act sees the couple living in their own apartment, every piece of which is canonically decorated by Basquiat in his pursuit of painting. By this point, Basquiat is already working at a gallery, where he is derided by staff including dealer Mary Boone and Albert Milo, a fictional artist who is a parody of Schnabel himself. Basquiat is then literally shown from the outside looking in at a party within the gallery. Excluded, he consoles himself by graffiting a metal gate nearby.

From then on, things move at a dizzying pace, much how it must’ve felt for Basquiat himself. Basquiat’s first meeting with Andy Warhol – played by David Bowie – and art dealer Bruno Bischofberger is shown happening at a restaurant, when the younger artist sells several of his postcards. Basquiat’s talent begins getting recognised, especially after he meets art critic Rene Ricard, who helps introduce him to people in the art world and lands him a spot at MoMA’s New York/New Wave show in 1981. There, he meets Annina Nosei, who offers him the funding and studio space to create and who becomes his first official art dealer.

Chapter Three: Boom For Real

Basquiat’s grittiness and urban outlook is shown in distinct contrast with the people who purchase his art. As his star rises, he begins cheating on his girlfriend – including with a blonde woman he calls “Big Pink”, largely understood to represent Madonna – and begins using more and more drugs. In one scene, Basquiat's girlfriend Gina struggles to wake him up and finds a needle, an indicator of the reliance on heroin that would eventually take his life. His other friendships also begin to struggle.

As he attends his second solo show and is accompanied by Andy Warhol, Basquiat shows off his art to his father. That evening, he is encouraged by Bischofberger to leave Nosei, and join his own gallery. Bischofberger buys one of the artworks that was originally supposed to be given to Ricard. The blonde woman from earlier shows up, creating friction between Basquiat and Gina. Overwhelmed, Basquiat takes Bischofberger’s limo where he has a conversation with the driver Shenge, who is also a painter and gets offered a job. Later, Basquiat is seen attending a dinner at Mr. Chow with illustrious art world figures, which inevitably descends into chaos.

A monochrome image of actor Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat film.Image © IMDB / Actors in Basquiat 1996

Chapter Four: Great Jones Street

There is a jump in the timeline, and Basquiat is now being interviewed a few years later. He has, at this point, already been included in the Whitney Biennial and changed galleries several times. The interview turns awkward as the interviewer becomes increasingly racist and antagonistic in his line of questioning.

By this point, Basquiat's friendship with Warhol has quite developed, and the two are shown purchasing caviar together, on which Basquiat spends $3,000. He now dines in expensive restaurants and has developed fine tastes. The film makes evident Basquiat’s extreme discomfort with external perceptions of him, especially discrimination and racism. In an attempt to evade these, Basquiat spends increasingly large amounts of money to prove his worth and standing within a largely white high society. As a result of his drug use, he has now developed sores on his face.

Chapter Five: Warhol

Remaining friends, Gina and Basquiat have a conversation where she expresses concerns that Warhol may be taking advantage of him, which the latter rejects. The duo’s creative partnership is then depicted as they prepare for their 1984 show, and Warhol demonstrates concerns about rumours about Basquiat’s burnout and his drug use.

When Basquiat attempts to paint a door next to his posters with Warhol, he is beaten up by fellow graffiti artists. After another time jump, presumably after the Basquiat x Warhol show and the critical panning that resulted from it, he invites Mary Boone to be his dealer, but she is hesitant. Warhol’s relationship with Basquiat is affected due to implications that the latter was the former’s mascot. Soon after that, Basquiat finds out about Warhol’s death, which impacts him deeply.

A screenshot of the film Basquiat by Julian Schnabel. It shows Andy Warhol, played by David Bowie, with Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat in the background.Image © IMDB / David Bowie as Warhol and Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat © Julian Schnabel 1996

Chapter Six: Radiant Child

In emotional moments, the film is interspersed with footage captured in the style of a home video camera. After Warhol’s death, Basquiat unsuccessfully attempts to get his mother out of the mental facility she has been in since he was a child. He then begins wandering the streets in a drugged state, further spiralling into addiction. After fainting in the middle of the street, Basquiat is found and rescued by his childhood friend Benny. In a dramatic full-circle moment from his childhood with the glowing crown, Basquiat tells the story of a prince who was imprisoned and had his voice stolen, and would bang his crown against the bars of the jail in an effort to be heard. The prince never escaped, but he made such a sound with his crown that it “filled everything up with beauty.”

After telling this story, Basquiat optimistically tells Benny they should “go to Ireland and have a drink in every bar.” The film cuts to black and a few lines of text inform the audience that “Jean-Michel Basquiat, American painter, died on August 12th, 1988 of a heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.” The abrupt cut into Basquiat’s death allows the audience to feel like many did in the art world, that of a brilliant life interrupted.

“He was so young. He was eaten up by it, yes definitely. I made a space. I insulated myself. Taking all those drugs confused his sense of reality and made him weaker. It made it difficult for him to protect himself. He got disenchanted with painting, just got bored with it. He felt like he didn’t have any friends. When he became friends with Andy, that relationship was extremely important to him, and people attacked those guys for being friends – wrote that he was Andy’s lapdog. Andy was his great hero. He was the sweetest guy and he loved Jean-Michel. One of the goals the film had was to show the purity of their friendship and how unconsciously people threw rocks at them.”
Julian Schnabel

The film is an emotionally vulnerable portrait of Basquiat, at a level that the artist rarely revealed himself. He was by all records quite shy, which Jeffrey Wright translates well onto the screen, but Basquiat’s distinct charisma is lost as his personality falls flat. He barely speaks, remaining aloof for most of the film. Bowie is excellent as Warhol – he captures the artist’s cadences and eccentricities perfectly, stealing the spotlight with every scene. The biggest strength of Basquiat (1996) is the fact that it is a biopic on an artist, by an artist. It exposes the underside of the art world, its characters and processes, and the effect it can have on an artist who is new at coping with fame.

Basquiat (1996) can be rented or purchased through Apple TV.

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