There’s a limit to the amount of complaining I’m willing to hear from celebrities about celebritydom. Basquiat, by posing its hero as that and nothing else, comes close: it would hardly seem there’s a luckier break than an influential party guest catching one’s Street Art on a mounted doorframe, hearing his name is “Jean-Michel” and exclaiming, “Oh my God, you sound famous already!”
It’s a setup that puts the cart before the horse — the fame before the art, to speak; before long Basquiat is sucked into a Big Bad World of sold-out shows and the possibility of being “used” by Andy Warhol. In a strange case of art imitating life, the (apparently) media and event-saturated life of Basquiat is given the full treatment by Hollywood: Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken show up for little more than cameo roles, while everyone from Dennis Hopper and Courtney Love to Tatum O’Neal make appearances — even David Bowie gets to handle Warhol’s “death warmed over” personality.
Read at Unsung Films: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.
I can only imagine the entourage-extravaganza this film’s premiere must have looked like — with that many famous people in attendance, one wouldn’t have to know a thing about what they’re supposed to doing — (ironically, a point Warhol capitalized on more than once). Where, however, does that leave our artist? Stranded between pondering how to get famous while shooting hoops with Benicio Del Toro and worrying about losing his fame once he acquired it. And still, there is deeper potential here: for all we hear of Basquiat’s unbelievable success, he continues to show more concern about the people who remain unconvinced that his ascent will last. That’s insecurity, and in a different film it would have been the starting point for a deeper character study.
Here, the art becomes overshadowed by Basquiat’s fame: his signature alone starts commanding prices comparable to the work that made it so. It’s the kind of film where an exchange of one art dealer for another is supposed to make a dramatic moment — though the sheer extravagance of the world its characters live within makes even this a choice between one tableful of celebrities over another. A question of aesthetics, one might wryly comment, though this film takes the scenario at face value: no difference remains between art and an artist’s name when a doodle with food is as eagerly sought as one of the canvas propers. (At least, I’m hoping there’s a difference between the two in artistic terms — if not between the forms, then the nature of a doodle and a finished canvas.)
“We’re no longer collecting art — we’re buying people,” one character comments. The statement could be a lynchpin for the entire film; depending on your mood, the Scene that results, which this film so faithfully portrays, could seem either slightly sad, or… “meh”. Perhaps platforms like blogs and social media will make us all celebrities one day, equally worthy of visibility and comment; in this film, there is already so little difference between the people who have achieved that status and those who haven’t, and pretend — or really don’t — care, there’s almost no value to the things they seem so ostensibly concerned about: no differences between a signature and a painting; no thrill or enjoyment, struggles or love, besides the occasional oblique comment on the meaning of art and the place of the artist. Near the beginning, Basquiat’s soon-to-be agent mentions his generation is loath to ignore another Van Gogh — and yet, I’d gladly hear a story about someone like Van Gogh than watch another Basquiat.