Review: Basquiat (1996)

Come for Bowie as Warhol. Stay for Walken’s single, movie-stealing scene.

A sensitive portrait of one artist by another. Writer/Director Julian Schnabel‘s affection for his subject is as apparent as Jeffrey Wright‘s portrayal is beautiful.

Schnabel’s choices of which moments in the short, extraordinary life of New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to show or to skip, to linger on or to barely acknowledge with just a line of dialogue, mean that moments which would have made for more glamorous visuals – the Club 57 party scene, his relationship with Madonna – are overlooked in favour of spending time in the mind, the heart, the process, the no less compelling everyday, of the artist (and, to a point, the Lothario). 8mm footage and surf movies, on TV screens and in Manhattan skylines, colour in Basquiat’s world view, and the lens through which we’re invited to view it.

The remarkableness of Basquiat lay not in the headlines, but in the way he approached the world.

Interestingly, while Jean-Michel’s relationships with males, who are mostly artists, are portrayed with a particular sensitivity, the females with whom he interacts are art-adjacent archetypes and composites: Elina Löwensohn‘s unscrupulous art dealer, Parker Posey‘s snobby agent, Courtney Love‘s… erm, groupie?, and particularly Claire Forlani‘s fictitious “Gina”, lack any agency or personality, and function purely as reflections of his genius. Meanwhile: Bowie as Warhol (which is as perfect as it sounds) is adorably quirky; Willem Dafoe‘s “Electrician” and Gary Oldman‘s Milo (a version of director Schnabel) offer Basquiat important artist-to-artist insights; and even Michael Wincott‘s flamboyant agent René comes off way more sympathetic, and ultimately genuinely wounded, than his female counterparts ever do (side-note: somebody hurry up and cast him in the Tom Waits biopic while he’s still age-appropriate).

But of all the impressive, ’90s-tastic cast, for me it’s Christopher Walken‘s single, movie-stealing scene as a journalist (another composite, one suspects) who asks the questions that encapsulate the less-flattering, and often blatantly racist, coverage Basquiat was also subjected to during his rapid explosion into art world celebrity.

The result: the film argues that the remarkableness of Basquiat lay not in the headlines, but in the way he approached the world.