Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Oh My God, You Sound Famous Already.

Jeffrey Wright fest! It would appear that we announce a festival in honour of an artist when we hit three films that they have been involved with. And unless he popped up in something the I didn't recognise, this is Wright's third appearance after this and this. We do love him so.

Basquiat was a bit of a breakout for Mr Wright, despite much acclaimed stage work (including Angels In America, a role he reprised on television.) And it's a beautifully juicy role to be given, a biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, friend of Warhol, major acclaim, kooky, rags to riches, all that business. And a seriously cool cast alongside you - Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal... wow. Plus! A film about an enfant terrible of the art world directed by an enfant terrible of the art world! What more could you want?

Basquiat (Wright) is a druggie, living rough, earning some notoriety for his graffiti work as Samo and the phrases he sketches on streetscapes. He works in an art gallery run by Mary (Posey), hanging paintings with an electrician also trying to make his way as an artist (Willem Dafoe) while Mary and her client, Albert (Oldman) abuse him until he walks out on them. He does some sketches and, with his friend Benny (Del Toro), manages to convince Andy Warhol (Bowie) and his manager Bruno (Hopper) to purchase these sketches - Warhol, in his terrific deadpan manner, comments after Basquiat's departure that they're actually good. Eventually, art dealer Rene Ricard (Wincott) spots one of his paintings at a party and tracks down Basquiat. The artist, still doing copious amounts of drugs as he tries and succeeds in romancing waitress Gina (Forlani), is quickly turned into a star, though on the way he burns many, many of his closest allies, including Rene and Gina. The destructive clinicism of Warhol's artistic cynicism starts to wear him down, and with no one there to say no, Basquiat spirals downwards.

Wright as Basquiat is fantastic, fully inhabiting the fear and fearlessness of success, the stoic drive behind the fragile artist, the self-belief and arrogance mixed with a paranoia that he might fade as fast as he rose. The supports, especially Oldman, Wincott and particularly Bowie, are terrific. Bowie as Warhol is almost scary in his disconnect from the world around him. Whether or not he is a perfect Warhol portrayer, he is perfect for this film.

It has been noted that the film can be seen as much as being about director Schnabel - I don't know a great deal about either artist outside of a decent knowledge of their work and where they fit into their respective movements, but even I picked up on distinct similarities between the characterised Basquiat and the real Schnabel. His pyjama wearing, for example. But whether or not the film is accurate to the truth of Basquiat's life, it doesn't really matter anyway. The film is an artwork by Julian Schnabel taking Basquiat's life as a leaping-off point, and like any great work of art it is not just technique but the emotion put into it, and that emotion is always going to be drawn from the artist themselves. So rather than seeing the film as a biopic, it is probably instead best to view it as a fictional narrative built around the basics of the artist, interpreted through the eyes of another artist who obviously holds the character in high regard.

But does the film work? In many ways, yes. The riveting performances and great cameos keep you watching and caring, despite the fact that Basquiat is in many ways repugnant once he gains his fame. But the film does not reach the heights of Schnabel's later The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, or even his Before Night Falls. It is, however, a solid debut and an interesting take on an artist's story. 3 stars.

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