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'Basquiat': Spray-Painted Valentine

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 16, 1996

"Basquiat" is a sweet dream of a biography. The movie, about painter-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat may be small in scope, factually rearranged and even coy about his life. You could blink, for instance, and miss the fact that Basquiat (played with extraordinary grace by Jeffrey Wright) was a reclusive heroin addict while his paintings were the toast of Manhattan.

But the film, written and directed by fellow artist Julian Schnabel, is so tender in its affections, these omissions and poetic licenses seem like the embellishments of a good friend. "Basquiat" has the shorthand rhapsody and dreamy reverie of a lover’s passionately scrawled postcard.

When we first meet Basquiat, a down-and-out Haitian-American in New York, he’s trying to be a musician. But his graffiti and brushwork are recognized by Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), who introduces him to Andy Warhol (David Bowie). The penniless artist, who senses an easy road to success, starts painting full time.

Basquiat really does have talent, it turns out. His efforts are soon recognized in galleries, the media and at Manhattan parties. Unfortunately, his neophyte sensibility cannot keep up with his newfound fame. He’s frustrated by obnoxious journalists (such as a nameless interviewer played by Christopher Walken), who want to label him a black artist. He’s unable to deal with the world of hangers-on, gallery owners, jealous artists and other SoHo parasites. And he’s entranced by the mystique of such tragic, addicted artists as Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker.

He loses track of himself, plunges even deeper into heroin (we sort of catch up on the fact that he has been doing it for some time) and squanders a personal relationship with waitress/artist Gina Cardinale (Claire Forlani). When Warhol dies, Basquiat’s subsequent downfall seems inevitable.

The movie, which doesn’t end so much as stop abruptly, knows enough to follow Wright around. As Basquiat, he’s a pure pleasure to watch, a dreadlocked manchild who veers between social shyness and impulsive artistic confidence. When he first sees Gina, who’s waiting on his table, Basquiat pours syrup on the wooden surface before him and etches her face in the goop. He presents his work to her proudly and wins her heart. Whatever one thinks of the sticky work, you know Basquiat has the soul of an artist. Wright’s presence is complemented by scores of alert, little performances. Forlani makes a sweet, devoted lover. Benicio del Toro is marvelous as Basquiat’s tell-it-straight roommate, Benny Dalmau. And David Bowie appropriates every scene he’s in. With a bleached fright wig, accidentally British inflections, and a pinched, peeved expression of bewilderment, he’s a pop-art scream.

It seems appropriate that Schnabel is behind the project. Both painters made their names in the art-is-what-you-get-away-with climate of 1980s Manhattan. Basquiat never rose to the occasion of his celebrity, but he was clearly the more talented of the two. Schnabel, who was more successful, was a brazen self-promoter, whose baffling titles, such as "The Tunnel (Death of an Ant Near a Powerplant in the Country)," and his superficial cultural appropriations (he painted on everything from smashed crockery to an old tarpaulin), excluded everyone but himself.

His self infatuation is evident throughout the film. He fills every available background, it seems, with his own paintings. And he has Gary Oldman playing a sympathetic, fictional version of himself—an artist called Milo. It may be grossly overstated to say that, in postmodern terms, "Basquiat" is about Salieri telling the Mozart story. After all, Basquiat was no Mozart. But it’s clear that the roles of biographer and biographee have been correctly assigned. And to his credit, Schnabel has risen to the task, causing us to fall in love with his subject. In this era, it’s almost impossible to say what constitutes great art. But Schnabel makes us believe Basquiat was great enough to celebrate.

BASQUIAT (R) — Contains sexual situations, fleeting implications of drug use and profanity.

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