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Movie Review

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

‘Radiant Child’ recalls Basquiat’s fame, talent

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 17, 2010

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The film trailer for Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, “Basquiat,’’ ended with the observation: “No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh.’’

More convincingly than Schnabel’s clunky, hagiographic film, the statement went straight to the heart of the Basquiat phenomenon. Here was a young, black graffiti artist with a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father who became a superstar painter in the 1980s, then died of a heroin overdose in 1988.

Was he, in fact, “another van Gogh’’? Or was it rather a case of no one wanting to be caught out ignoring the messiah in their midst (and over-compensating accordingly)?

Tamra Davis’s lively new documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,’’ does the right thing by helping us to answer these questions for ourselves. It’s certainly an improvement on Schnabel’s film, which, with its clumsy script and gratuitous star turns by David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, and Christopher Walken, only compounded Basquiat’s “famous for being famous’’ problem.

Davis makes deft use of an interview she did with Basquiat at the height of his fame. The intimate, home video footage — which has never been shown — feels poignant, a throwback to Basquiat’s early days on the New York scene when he got by on his good looks, an elusive inner confidence, and the generosity of others.

Davis sets the scene with a montage of photos and footage showing downtown Manhattan in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz began peppering local buildings with graffiti. Basquiat quickly became, in one observer’s words, the “prince of the scene.’’

Some of the most honest and tender observations come from Basquiat’s girlfriend at the time, Suzanne Mallouk. Her account of Basquiat’s attempt to please her by taking on a normal day job is hilarious and heartbreaking; he returned from the ordeal in tears. We hear, too, from people like the art dealer (now director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art) Jeffrey Deitch and from the curator Diego Cortez, who was the first to suggest to the penniless bohemian that he make paintings. (Better yet, he gave him some cash to buy the necessary materials.)

The rest is an amazing and tragic story. The saddest part is Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol, the souring of their relationship under the duress of intense press criticism of their collaboration, and Warhol’s sudden death, from which Basquiat apparently never recovered.

There’s enough footage of Basquiat’s paintings to remind us that he had enormous artistic talent. But his own desire to be famous, which was matched by a similarly ardent desire on the part of others to make him famous, thwarted and obscured that talent like a parasitic vine. It continues to do so after his death.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: The Radiant Child Directed by: Tamra Davis

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 88 minutes

Unrated

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