Set in the New York art world, Basquiat is the true-life story of a graffiti artist who became one of the New York art world’s hottest properties. Jean-Michel Basquiat, the son of a middle-class family, was living in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square in 1979. A few years later, he was hanging out with Andy Warhol and Bruno Bischofberger, riding through the streets in limos, and having solo shows in some of the most prestigious galleries in town.
As the movie painfully reveals, success for this artist was tragically short-lived. Consumed by his own drug habit, and pursued by predatory dealers and collectors, the life and art of Basquiat was cut short in it’s prime. The artist was 28 when he died of a heroin overdose.
Jeffrey Wright, who played on Broadway in Angels In America, gives a stellar performance as Basquiat. There is dream-like quality about his character. He lives in a world that is indescribable with words, can only be represented by broad strokes of color and near-hieroglyphic scribblings penned on the edges of the canvas. What we’re given is a painful story of a man who truly knew what art was, and was naïve enough to create it anytime, anywhere, and with any material.
David Bowie plays Andy Warhol, and if the film weren’t craftily edited to keep his scenes to a minimum, he would have stolen the show. His portrayal of the eccentric artist is superb. At times he is more Andy Warhol than Warhol was, himself. For instance, there is one short scene in which Basquiat is fooling around with one of Warhol’s silver wigs, slapping it on top of his head. When he asks Warhol why his wigs are just lying around, the man replies: “I was thinking about giving them away. As presents, maybe.” Another scene shows Warhol directing an assistant as he urinates on one of his paintings. When asked why he isn’t pissing on his own paintings, Warhol shrugs, his hand on his hip, and mutters that he can’t stomach Mexican beer.
The movie didn’t seem to stay in movie theaters for very long when it was first released. Most of this might be due to the obvious lack of action in the film. This isn’t a picture where you can sit back in your chair and be hand-held through the twists in the plot. Basquiat requires thought, it requires a willingness to see beyond the pigment of the canvas to the very threads that hold it together. Otherwise, the subtlety of the film will escape you. And within this framework is where the tragic beauty of Basquiat’s life dwells.