on August 09, 1996 by Joseph McBride
More interesting visually than dramatically, "Basquiat" is an offbeat biopic of the avant-garde painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who flourished briefly before dying of a heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27. Fellow artist Julian Schnabel, making his directing debut, creates arresting tableaus and vignettes of the Manhattan art scene, with an eclectic cast amusingly caricaturing some of the period's colorful personalities. But underneath the film's alluring surface is a rather conventional, two-dimensional cautionary tale of the artist who can't handle the temptations of too-early success.
Schnabel's painterly approach to filmmaking (aided by cinematographer Ron Fortunato and production designer Dan Leigh) gives the narrative an eccentric rhythm, employing compositions often resembling still-lifes or semidocumentary collages. Riotous splashes of cacophonously clashing colors echo the feeling of Basquiat's seemingly effortless pictorial style, with its underlying hints of emotional disturbance. Jeffrey Wright (Tony winner for "Angels in America") dreamily inhabits the title role, playing Basquiat as a depraved naif whose open, experimental personality is as appealing as it is self-destructive.
Schnabel scathingly exposes the trivialization and condescension with which the young black artist was greeted by his elitist white patrons, but what's lacking is a subcutaneous examination of the roots of Basquiat's profound self-loathing. A prologue showing Basquiat as a boy studying Picasso's "Guernica" with his mentally ill mother is a clumsy attempt to provide a backstory, and hokey fantasy images fail to render the painter's inner life.
This canny insider's portrait of the art world is enlivened by a supporting cast that includes David Bowie as a kindly Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper as an art patron, Claire Forlani as Basquiat's discarded girlfriend and such names as Gary Oldman, Paul Bartel, Courtney Love, Parker Posey, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Tatum O'Neal. Starring Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman and Claire Forlani. Directed and written by Julian Schnabel. Produced by Jon Kilik, Randy Ostrow and Joni Sighvatsson. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for drug use and strong language. Running time: 107 min.
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