Career crossovers can be perilous, especially if you're famous. Having listened to the painter Julian Schnabel's debut as a singer/songwriter last year, I was fully expecting that Basquiat, his first effort as a screenwriter/director, would be equally inept and self-indulgent. Schnabel is the latest big-name artist to project his vision onto the silver screen, after the critical failures of colleagues like David Salle (Search and Destroy) and Robert Longo (Johnny Mnemonic) proved that painterly skill is a world apart from directorial talent. However, Basquiat, which is being touted as the first movie made about an artist by another artist, shows that the leap can be made with some integrity--and even some intrigue.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a prodigious painter, one whose potential genius was hampered by others' exploitation and by his own hubris and romanticism. By the age of 24, he'd had 23 one-man exhibitions in galleries worldwide, and when he ODed on heroin and coke three years later, in 1988, he left behind some 800 works of art. He was the youngest artist ever to show in the prestigious Whitney Biennial, and the first (and only) black painter to be anointed with such widespread acclaim--a fact whose implications color the whole movie.
Schnabel claims much of his screenplay is factually true; indeed, a number of the film's details were related in a January 1989 chronicle of Basquiat's career in ARTnews (one that culminates with a quote from Schnabel himself). There's the artist's formative childhood visit with his mother to see Picasso's "Guernica," and his first big splash as a 19-year-old at a group show, where dealers flocked to him and a curator from the Met bought a work for $2,000. At this exhibit, Basquiat (played in the movie by Broadway star Jeffrey Wright) also met his first dealer, Annina Nosei (Elina Lowensohn), who got him cranking out paintings in the basement of her gallery and brought by nouveau riche collectors to stake claims on unfinished work. As pressure started bearing down, he tended to lock himself in the bathroom and make the art mavens deal with his girlfriend. (In the movie, it's repeatedly suggested, via closing shots on actress Claire Forlani's beleaguered face, that she fueled much of Basquiat's energy.) He abandoned old friendships with fellow graffiti artists, and developed one with his idol, Andy Warhol (David Bowie)--which also ended, after a show of their collaborative work got awful reviews.
This may be Basquiat's story, but the director also manages to make it a vanity project of sorts. Granted, Schnabel was as much a luminary as Basquiat--and so, taking that as license, he grants himself prominent placement as "Albert Milo" (played by Schnabel's buddy Gary Oldman), one of the few characters with a fictive name. A sprinkling of other real-life Schnabels play Milo's family members, including, creepily enough, one of Schnabel's young daughters in the role of Milo's wife. Cropping up even more than the director's clan are his own paintings. In one scene, Milo invites Basquiat over to his palatial studio/loft for spaghetti--a thinly veiled opportunity for "Milo" to show off several of Schnabel's overblown canvases in some detail. (Also appearing in this scene is a song from Schnabel's CD.) And when Warhol and Basquiat are working at Warhol's studio, three Warhol portraits of Schnabel loom in the background--in a close-up shot, his image is literally looking over Basquiat's shoulder.
None of this should be surprising, given Schnabel's reputation for possessing an ego to match his gigantesque, barrel-chested physique. What is remarkable is that Basquiat is still nowhere near as laughably awful as Schnabel's attempt at music-making. True, the film has some pious moments (including, unfortunately, the beginning and the end), the use of soundtrack music is often clumsy and overly literal, and several artsy/surreal touches don't quite work. But Basquiat may well have been a disastrous project if not for the good graces of Schnabel's many friends in high places: a trio of high-profile producers, and enough well-publicized actor friends so that, at times, Basquiat risks becoming a spot-the-celebrity game (it's especially hard not to see Bowie as merely one icon playing another). Most effective, however, are the lesser-knowns like Michael Wincott as the star-making art critic Rene Ricard, Benicio del Toro as Basquiat's wise but drug-damaged friend Benny, and, not the least, Wright as Basquiat.
Perhaps because Schnabel's own painting career has long since plateaued, he pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the bitchiness, frivolity, and backstabbing of the New York art scene. Basquiat makes repeated, if rather obvious points about who determines artistic genius, and in Basquiat's case, the way his race played into it. The art world elite didn't snatch him up in some benevolent mission to be more inclusive; it was more that Basquiat's raw talent and "exoticism" as a young, black street kid (in fact, he had a middle-class upbringing in Brooklyn) became deliciously saleable to rich people during the '80s boom in art collecting. "This is the true voice of the gutter," Nosei says of him to one client, while Ricard tells Basquiat he hangs around him because "You're the news, and I want the scoop."