Just cause you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s not “hip”.
Despite living a life of extreme poverty in Brooklyn, graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) ended up becoming one of the biggest and brightest names in art, during the 70’s and 80’s. He became the poster-boy for what would essentially be known as “neo-Expressionism” earning all types of praise, as well as money from those who wanted a little piece of his pie. It also helped him gain something of a wonderful and lovely friendship between him and Andy Warhol (David Bowie), who, at the end of his life, was looking to hang out with the hot young thing in the art world. However, Basquiat’s personal demons continued to haunt him throughout his whole life, whether it was his battle with racism, drug addiction, or staying loyal to his girlfriend (Claire Forlani), the art was always there to aid him. But was it ever enough? Judging by how his story ends, probably not.
Basquiat is a an interesting biopic because it isn’t what you’d expect a movie about an artist, directed by an artist, actually be like. Writer/director Julian Schnabel could have easily decked-out every inch of Basquiat with all sorts of watch-me, pretentious style-points and he probably would have been able to get away with it, too; artist biopics are probably the easiest where a director’s own creativity has no limits and allow for them to go as overboard as they want. Of course, there are the exceptions to the rule like Pollock and Basquiat, which makes them both very compelling to watch, if only because neither one loses sight of what the real story is about and, yes, that’s the artist themselves.
And in this case, Basquiat deals with a very sad and interesting figure that, for a solid portion of the movie, hardly does, or says anything – for a good portion of the running-time, Basquiat is seen being told what to do and going from one character to the next, occasionally having conversation, although mostly, just standing around and mumbling to himself. Sounds boring and like a true waste of having someone like Basquiat at your disposal, but it actually works in the movie’s favor – it gives us a better idea for who this person was, why his art mattered so much, and why the art-world, at the time and in the present day, isn’t all the love and hype it’s made out to be. It’s a pretty soulless and annoying world, where people constantly try to piggy-back off of the latest and greatest thing, even if they don’t really know what it all means.
So long as they have enough money to buy it, then who cares, right?
Although, that’s where Basquiat, the movie, does fumble a tad bit. It doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a small, understated character-study, a satire on the art-world, or this ensemble piece about said art-world, with all sorts of colorful and wild characters popping in and out. In a way, I sort of like all three of those movies, but together, they don’t always gel; the movie will actually forget about Basquiat at certain times, making it hard to wonder just who’s story this actually is.
It’s nice though to get the ensemble piece, because it allows for us to get a treat of the lovely and awesome ensemble here, what with some of the finest character actors of the day having an absolute ball. The likes of Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, Courtney Love, and a stand-out Michael Wincott all get plenty of ample opportunities to bring something to the story and Basquiat’s life, but it’s really David Bowie who steals the whole show as an aging, late-in-life Andy Warhol. What’s interesting about this portrayal is that Bowie never overdoes the mannerisms that we all knew Warhol for; he’s soft-spoken and whiny, but never feels like he’s acting. In other words, Bowie inhabits every bit of Warhol and allows for us to see not just someone who’s still very funny, but also a little bit sad, trying to grab onto any sign of fame and fortune that he has left.
Once again, it just proves the kind of talent Bowie was.
And this isn’t to take anything away from Jeffrey Wright, either, as he does a fine job in the lead role. But like I said before, the movie does often get distracted by all of these colorfully wild and entertaining bit-players, most of whom steal the spotlight from Wright in the first place. There’s still a sweet, soft and hurt soul within Wright’s performance that makes it compelling, but you’d think that in a much more focused movie, he would have been able to do so much more. Still though, it did put Wright on the map and man, oh man, the guy has gone on to do some great stuff, so hey, can’t be all that upset about it.
Consensus: Well-acted and intimate, Basquiat is an interesting, heartfelt look at the life of the infamous artist, but also loses focus every so often, and makes us wonder what could have happened with a smaller cast.
7 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Alt Screen