Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and a father of Haitian extraction. Blessed with a rebellious nature, he ran away from home a lot during adolescence, finally leaving for good at 17. Moving to Manhattan, he dropped out of school to fritter away his days spray-painting his alias, "Samo," all over the place, because as he put it, "The whole object of doing graffiti is fame."
Fortunately, some well-connected folks in the high-priced art world recognized that Jean-Michel actually had some talent and convinced the kid to go legit. He agreed to give it a try, and watched with amazement as his paintings rapidly escalated in price from $200 to $30,000 a piece. It wasn't long before he found himself rubbing elbows with celebrated icons like Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel.
Some people can handle such overnight success, but Jean-Michel wasn't one of them. Because he was making way more money than any of his friends and hangers-on, he got a swelled head and decided to serve as the fulcrum of a non-stop, substance-abusing party which eventually culminated with a heroin overdose in his studio at the age of 27.
All of the above, plus his arresting array of hairstyles ranging from sumo wrestler to Mohawk to weed-wacker, are amply illustrated in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a cautionary documentary about the downside of having it all. Basquiat was already the subject of a dramatization of his life directed by pal Schnabel and starring Jeffrey Wright.
What make this flick a real treat is seeing file footage of the bombastic iconoclast in all his glory before he bottomed out on smack. Too bad he didn't have that one person in his entourage he could trust to pull his coattails about the dangers of intravenous drug use. But hey, if he were still alive, there might not be any Basquiat mystique for the upscale auction houses to capitalize on.
In certain circles, it's still better to flame out than to fade away.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 90 Minutes
Distributor: Arthouse Films