Written and directed by Julian Schnabel, Basquiat is the 1996 film based on the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The American artist who revolutionized the post-modern art world with his raw, textured collages and neo-expressionist style. Basquiat first gaining a sizable public acknowledgement for his graffiti-art that peppered the walls and subways of lower Manhattan in 1978/79. His art and street-style quickly become the voice of a hip new subculture. Along with rap and punk music, graffiti–painting articulated the creativity and views of the New York underground. Often exposing the central lie at the heart of the American Dream; the illusion of equality. Basquiat’s paintings using expressionist design, texture, abstraction and negation to create a cultural commentary. Disjointed words, random numbers and distorted drawings adding a direct and uncompromising element to his work. Challenging society by confront issues of systemic racism within the elite predatory class. For example, his famous graffiti signature “SAMO” used in his early work began as a slang term between Basquiat and his long-time friend and collaborator, Al Diaza. The two creating an important “character” of their art and a statement about art and society; SAMO = Same old shit.
Eventually, Basquiat’s dreams of fame and fortune did coming true. He became the “toast of the town” in the New York art world. Even receiving the social embrace (and friendship) of Andy Warhol and the world famous art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. It seemed that SAMO had arrived. A status that he both craved and deplored. And those contradictions seemed to be everywhere. In 1983, after returning to New York from a long vacation with friends in Europe and Asia, Basquiat created (perhaps) his most famous and emotional work of art. Painting Defacement in response to the murder of Michael Stewart. A young black artist arrested for painting graffiti in Union Station and then beaten for hours by the New York City Transit Police. By the time Stewartfinally arrived at the hospital, he was in a coma from which he would never awaken. Dying 13 days later. The incident scarred Basquiat. Although he had not known Micheal Stewart well, Basquiat never fully recovered from the brutality of Stewart’s killing. The murder was a reminding that under the veneer of culture, wealth and fame that he enjoyed, the old forces of hate and supremacy still controlled the streets. SAMO.
Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat does not touch on all of the events of the artist’s life. How could it? Instead the film focuses on the late 70s/early 80s art, music and fashion scene. Standing as a kind of love letter to the friendship between Basquiat and Andy Warhol. The two artists finding something in each other. Warhol was a mentor. Helping Jean-Michel Basquiat navigate the difficult terrain between the artistic and commercial. And while Schnabel mostly presents a rather romantic view of the period, he does capture the meloncholy and tender sadness of a brilliant artist and his personal struggle to find love, friendship and success. Basquiatwas a man caught between two worlds. The cool street artist that was now part of the commercial art world. His feeling of detachment from old friends vs. his mistrust of new famous friends. Would anyone be able to survive in this situation? Ultimately, he never found the balance needed. Basquiat dying of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.
The film is full of good / great performances that include David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger. With additional actors Jeff Wright(as Basquiat), Benicio del Toro (always brilliant), Courtney Love, William Defoe, Christopher Walken and Parker Posey all enhancing the background of this very special story about a talented rising star of the New York art community during a period when anything and everything seem possible. Maybe even probable. The illusion of the dream had not yet melted away. The fashion, music, art and hope had not yet succumb to the political ugliness that would soon grip the entire nation.
It’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack to the film is an interesting snapshot from the period. The soundtrack features some great music used effectively; the powerful flash of PIL’s brilliant Public Image, GrandMaster Flash’s groovy, cocaine masterpiece White Lines and a beautiful, surreal rendition of Bobby Zimmerman’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue by Them. All are used to stunning effect in the film. Although the official soundtrack does miss some important tracks used in the film. Specially, the Miles Davis and CharlieParker tracks that set the mood and vibe of the film. A few featured tracks do seem to miss the mark entirely. Notably, the Rolling Stones’ Beast of Burden and Waiting on a Friend are both oddly out-of-place and overly similar.