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USA 1996
Directed by
Julian Schnabel
106 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1.5 stars


Jean Michael Basquiat was an young black graffiti artist who became an international sensation in the hot-house atmosphere of the 1980s New York art scene. Director Julian Schnabel was one of his peers whilst people such as Dennis Hopper and David Bowie, who appear in this fictionalised biography, were the kind of rich-and-famous-for-being-famous precursors whose lives of cashed-up excess (including buying Basquiat's paintings) fuelled the flames that immolated Basquiat by the age of 27.

Never actually having seen a Basquiat I do not know if they were any good or simply fashion statements (Robert Hughes was particularly dismissive) although they certainly look colourful and dramatic here. Schnabel's evident desire was to celebrate his fellow artist's life and work (and his own for that matter, the character of Albert Milo (Gary Oldman), is a thinly-veiled portrait of the director himself, and many of the writer/director's own paintings appear. Unsurprisingly the film is terminally self-regarding and, bar a few nice touches, witlessly self-indulgent, indeed more of a unintentional condemnation than a celebration.

Basquiat, as played by the chronically-posturing Jeffrey Wright (although one cannot tell who to attribute the posturing to, Wright or Basquiat), comes across as just another spoilt child predictably fulfilling the too-much-too-soon life trajectory of which James Dean has been the oft-reiterated pioneer. Schnabel's approach is entirely descriptive and heavily romanticised (why would the translucently beautiful Claire Forlani take up with a fellow living in a cardboard box, even if he was charismatically good-looking and groovily dreadlock'd?) with the usual servings of repugnant art-world hustlers (Parker Posey plays Mary Boone, whose gallery was one of the biggest in New York in the 80s), philistinic wealthy patrons, critics and hangers on.

There is a certain perverse pleasure in seeing David Bowie quite effectively play his good buddy Andy Warhol (effective in that both of them are/were chronically mannered performers), but it is limited, and other cast members including Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Walken add nothing of note, giving the feeling that they're all well familiar with the world depicted but hardly taxed in the acting stakes.




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