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Refreshingly free of BS
For too long, the only Jean-Michel Basquiat we've had in film is Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic (a good movie but heavily fictionalized), and the Downtown 81, a patchwork curiosity. I saw this doc with a bit of apprehension, worrying I might see a film of rehashed, superficial hype about some famous guy's famous coolness and his famous burnout. I came away really pleased.
The doc is conventional, a no-frills mix of archive footage & contemporary interviews, but this works well - it left the focus on well-selected interviews and Basquiat's artwork, which the filmmaker apparently had free rein to use and did so liberally. The catalyst for this documentary is Tamra Davis's own footage of Basquiat (circa 1986/87?), and those sections are definitely a highlight.
The substance comes from a surprisingly diverse collection of interviews, none of which wastes any screen time. There were the ex-girlfriends, old friends and art dealers, but Robert Farris Thompson, the Yale art professor who may have never met Basquiat, had some of the films most interesting comments. Diego Cortez ("I was sick of seeing white walls with white people drinking white wine") and Fab 5 Freddy both had lines that were hits with the audience. But still, the focus on Basquiat's artwork itself was the best thing here.
Some of the most-repeated, least-interesting gossip I've heard about Basquiat are referenced (he dated Madonna, painted in an expensive suit, etc etc) but this is kept to a minimum.
The weak link was too much reference to the mythical time Basquiat was "living on the streets" as a teenager. It's said he was living on the streets (or with girlfriends, to be more precise) because he was a broke kid determined to live in New York. But the record was also set straight about his background: he wasn't a genius who magically spawned from uneducated poverty. His family was well-off, he was exposed to art, music and intellectual thinking at an early age. And yet one of those interviewed got away with saying he couldn't handle the pressure of success because he'd only a little while before "he was living in the streets."
The other odd omission was any information about the girlfriend Jennifer Goode despite several photos of her, when other women in his life were interviewed at length.
Overall, very good work, and a must-see for anyone interested in the work of Basquiat.