Basquiat (1996)

BasquiatmovieposterI discovered this film almost by accident, in another case of me stumbling upon a film that, perhaps not a gem, was a good film that took on genuinely interesting subject matter, namely the trappings of the art world from the view of an artist, as he quests for fame and lives through what it is really like. Of course, I say this as an art student, and I very much doubt that anyone not interested in art would be interested in this film.

The film is a biopic based on the life of Jean-Michael Basquiat, a neo-expressionist painter from Brooklyn, New York who emerged from the American “punk” scene to the international art gallery circuit, and quickly became one of the most celebrated artists of the 1980’s, until his death in August 1988. The film chronicles a fictionalised account of his discovery by Andy Warhol, his subsequent rise to fame, and the price he pays for it.

A number of fictional characters were added to the film, perhaps to create a more dramatic and possibly more relatable film. For instance, there’s a character called Gina Cardinale, who, because the film is biographical in nature, I assumed was a real person, but upon googling the name, I discovered that she was basically a character created so that the fictionalised Basquiat could have a lover who sticks by him. The film also has the honour of being the first feature film about a painter that was made by a painter (that would be director Julian Schnabel), and he created a character based on himself, so as to insert himself into the film.

The film sometimes comes across as a glamourising portrayal of the art gallery scene, but it certainly makes for an engaging drama, thanks mainly to its characters. In addition to looking the part, Jeffrey Wright delivers a good performance as Jean-Michael Basquiat, injecting a sense of humanity into his character. It showed a man who was neither a completely good man (he certainly took pleasure in painting over his girlfriend’s clothes) nor a completely bad man, and was concerned with his bottom line, which would be fame.

The characters work quite well, but the film is perhaps best known for David Bowie’s role as Andy Warhol. Bowie’s brilliant character acting succeeds yet again, as he delivers a nuanced portrayal of an artist often stereotyped as a pretentious phony. I’m not entirely surprised, since Bowie personally knew Andy Warhol (he even wrote a song about him for his fourth album). He brought a lot of depth to the character he was playing, and he even looked like a very good Warhol impressionist. His portrayal of Warhol adds a lot to the fictionalised Warhol, and I dare say his version of Warhol is more likable.

Thankfully, the man at the directorial helm, Julian Schnabel, is an artist himself, and his knowledge of art world helps him bring the film to life. The film visually coneys the kind of environment that Jean-Michael Basquiat worked in, and this is also helped by the film’s choice of music, which I felt worked in a number of ways. Because Basquiat’s estate refused to let him use the late artist’s original works, Schnabel himself, along with his studio assistant, created a number of paintings in the style of Basquiat, and I feel this adds another layer of authenticity to it, or about as close as they could get.

Though it comes across as the heavily fictionalised kind of biopic, it was definitely an entertaining film, and a uniquely compelling parable of an artist who propelled himself into fame as quickly as he could and paid the price for it.

  • Score: 73%
  • Grade: C

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