Prodigal Prodigy

Basquiat documentary depicts the artist as a young man With its repetitive vocal line and frenetic bounciness, the 1940s bebop tune “Salt Peanuts” was the perfect song for the opening credits of The Radiant Child, a documentary about artist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. A New York City counter-culture icon of the early 1980s, Basquiat sent shockwaves through the era’s sterile minimalist movement with his ostentatious expressionist paintings (which often featured word repetition and a staccato, improvisational style, like “Salt Peanuts”). The Radiant Child is an adequate documentary that is elevated greatly by Basquiat’s natural charm — which is mostly delivered in a never-before-seen interview — as well as an insightful look at his artistic influences. A single, previously unseen on-camera interview conducted more than 20 years ago by the film’s director, Tamra Davis (who, strangely enough, also directed the hip-hop mockumentary CB4 and cult classic Billy Madison) provides a strong narrative backbone for her documentary. Davis shapes the movie chronologically, beginning with Basquiat’s legendary teenage years as a “homeless” (he was actually more of a couch surfer) bohemian looking for his creative outlet. She quickly touches on Basquiat’s teenage years, which included some time as the celebrated street artist SAMO as well as a stint in a no-wave band with director and artist Vincent Gallo, before getting to the good stuff — Basquiat’s early career as a painter. Davis gathers testimonials from a range of Basquiat’s acquaintances, including journalists, art dealers, scenesters, gallery owners and ex-girlfriends. All of these talking heads give the viewer a good sense of Basquiat the artist. Unfortunately, Davis falls short in providing a sense of Basquiat the man, other than the usual “artist burning the candle at both ends” cliches, which usually involve the archetype of poverty followed by unbelievable overnight success, followed by drugs and death. This may not be entirely Davis’s fault. Basquiat’s money and fame alienated him from many of his oldest friends. He’s also depicted as a prolific visual artist who seemingly never stopped working — perhaps the artist was the man. Basquiat’s heroin use warrants little more than a couple of “he’d gotten into drugs” recollections, glossing over the real tragedy of his early death. An odd friendship with Andy Warhol (one of Basquiat’s seemingly few close friends) provides a little more insight into Basquiat’s personal life and also helps to explain his depression after Warhol’s death. Even with its shortcomings, there’s an elusive power to the film. It wins in its examination of Basquiat’s art, and the film is at its best when showing side-by-side comparisons of Basquiat’s paintings with the paintings that inspired his work, revealing the reflexive quality of Basquiat’s art and his role as a bebop-inspired filter for modern art. The Radiant Child may succeed only for the same reasons its subject found success (a winning smile and an interesting personality), but it is an interesting tribute, even if it is a sunny assessment of a somewhat gloomy life. GRADE: B-

posted at 12:05 pm
on Wednesday, October 06th, 2010


(We're testing Facebook commenting (you can login using other services, too); please let us know if you have trouble.)


« Previous Page

Slipping Mickey

Gather ‘round kids and hear a story from the days of yore, a time when artists drew cartoons with their actual human hands and not every children’s movie had covert sex jokes for ma and pa to...

more »

Marvel Blockbusts a Cap

With fight choreography pickpocketed from Baryshnikov and more leaping and bounding than Pooh’s friend Tigger on cocaine, Captain America (Chris Evans) makes beating the crap out of bad guys look...

more »

That Ship Cray

They gave the guy who made Requiem for a Dream $150 million to make a movie about Noah’s ark. Huh?! In Requiem, writer/director Darren Aronofsky had Jennifer Connelly connect with another woman via...

more »

Quirking on Something Different

To alter a phrase from Twain, who won’t mind because he’s dead, writer/director Wes Anderson repeated history until he figured out how to rhyme. Barring a brief foray into stop-motion animation,...

more »

Speedy and Irritable

The most important thing to know before attempting to endure the lumbering bore that is Need for Speed is this: every single character in the film is unspeakably dumb. Presumably set in a world...

more »

Advanced Search