1996, R, 107 min. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Starring Jeffrey Wright, Michael Wincott, Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Courtney Love, Parker Posey, Elina Lowensohn, Paul Bartel, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Tatum O'Neal.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 23, 1996

Basquiat gives the appearance of being a film biography of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the black American painter of Haitian descent who rose to the pinnacle of the 1980s New York art world but whose career was abruptly curtailed by his death from heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. Basquiat is directed by another art-world lion of the Eighties, Julian Schnabel, a friend and colleague of Basquiat. With Basquiat, Schnabel debuts as a motion-picture writer and director, and also creates a fictionalized film version of himself as the artist and Basquiat friend Albert Milo, played with great insouciance by Gary Oldman. What occurs here is that the biographical aspects of Basquiat's life are left in the dust of Schnabel's bearish authorial voice that turns this film into an exploratorium for his own personal demons about the relationship between a genius and his society and the turbulent intersection of art and commerce that so typified the New York art scene of the Eighties. Thus, the film is best viewed in the context of a new piece by Schnabel (an analysis best left to the art historians) rather than biography on film. As a bio-picture, Basquiat resorts to the hoariest of clichés about the rise and fall of artistic genius; wildly expressionistic moments such as one of the movie's opening scenes in which Basquiat the child is anointed with a golden crown upon viewing Picasso's Guernica or the recurring images of a surfer riding the waves of the New York skyline (bet you can't guess what happens to Basquiat when the surfer wipes out); and a willful disregard for certain biographical elements of the Basquiat story (i.e., his middle-class background, his consuming devotion to the drug that took his life, and certain out-of-sequence historical details) that are simply out-of-place within the fairy-tale fable that Schnabel wishes to relate. Despite its inadequacies, Basquiat presents a fascinating glimpse of the Eighties art scene, due in large measure to several stunning performances. Most notable is Jeffrey Wright (who received multiple awards for his tour-de-force portrayal of nurse Belize in the Broadway production of Angels in America) as Basquiat in a memorable performance that captures the artist's body language and psychological quandaries. Wonderful supporting performances are also turned in by Michael Wincott as critic Rene Ricard, Claire Forlani as Basquiat's girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Benicio Del Toro as the artist's fictionalized longtime pal, Dennis Hopper as German art dealer Bruno Bishofberger, Paul Bartel as museum curator Henry Geldzahler, Parker Posey as Chanel-suited art dealer Mary Boone, and a very sporting Tatum O'Neal as a know-nothing art patron. Portraying Andy Warhol, David Bowie wears the famous wigs and gets the legend's mannerisms down pat, but we never quite lose sight of the Bowie behind the Warhol. And would you believe that Christopher Walken, cast as an anonymous interviewer, delivers what may be his most sedate and ordinary performance ever? Also wasted here, in what can only be termed “plain” performances, are Willem Dafoe as a mature artist and Courtney Love as a generic groupie. Basquiat is also kept afloat by its fantastic music score, a melange of Iggy Pop, Grandmaster Flash, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, John Cale, The Pogues, and much, much more. As soundtracks go, Basquiat is as good as they get.

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Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Wincott, Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Courtney Love, Parker Posey, Elina Lowensohn, Paul Bartel, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Tatum O'Neal

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