Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Written and directed by Julian Schnabel from various stories by Michael Thomas Holman, Lech J. Majewski and John F. Bowe, Basquiat is the story on the life of the famed post-modernist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat who rose to fame in the 1980s with his take on painting and art. The film is an exploration into Basquiat’s desire to make art as well as growing disdain towards the middle class as he is played by Jeffrey Wright. Also starring Dennis Hopper, Claire Forlani, Gary Oldman, Benicio del Toro, Michael Wincott, Parker Posey, and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. Basquiat is a mesmerizing yet exhilarating film from Julian Schnabel.
The film is a bio-pic of sorts about the famed street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who came from the world of graffiti art in the late 1970s to become one of the most revered post-modernist painters of the 1980s New York City art scene until his death at the age of 27 of a drug overdose in 1988. Yet, what writer/director Julian Schnabel does is create a film where a young man rises up from the streets to the get attention of many only to struggle with fame as well as the need to rise above many including the middle class who saw him as a sellout. It’s a film that does play into that rise and fall scenario but it’s more about the idea of being an artist and having to struggle with all of the temptations of fame.
Even as there are those who are exploiting him while there are others who are just drawn to him like Andy Warhol who becomes a mentor of sorts for Basquiat. While the script does use that scenario, it is also a character study of sorts in how Basquiat does things as an artist as an act of rebellion only to lose himself in a world of commerce and admiration. It all plays into this high-octane world of art as everyone wants a piece of him yet there are those like the esteemed art critic Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) who felt betrayed by Basquiat as well as old friends of him who aren’t interested in that high-class world of New York City art.
Schnabel’s direction is quite simple in terms of compositions but it has elements of style in the way it plays into the world of New York City art with its galleries and presentation which is exciting at times but also has this air of elitism. There are elements of styles that includes footage of a surfer on a wave that Basquiat often sees in the sky as it plays into Ricard’s article as he talks about Van Gogh and how a new generation of art enthusiasts must not have another one since Van Gogh in his lifetime only sold one painting. Yet, what would happen if Van Gogh was discovered in his prime and would gain fame as these are some of the questions that Schnabel asks. Even as he uses art to help tell the story where it would emphasize many of Basquiat’s struggles with it as he isn’t just seen as a major African-American who breaks into the art world but someone who is redefining the idea of what art is.
While the film doesn’t feature any actual art of Basquiat due to rights issues, Schnabel and artist Greg Bogin do create paintings and such that play into the style that Basquiat would define. Since the film is shot on location in New York City, it does play as a character in the film where it has this mixture of high-society and high culture where everyone who is anyone can participate but there’s also an element of street culture that Basquiat is from. It adds to the dramatic conflict that is prevalent in the film as it’s third act plays into Basquiat’s own descent as he tries to find answers through many including Warhol who is convinced that Basquiat is a much better artist. Yet, it’s not enough to help the young artist who would cope with drug addiction as Schnabel brings in elements of surrealism as well as a story that plays into everything that Basquiat would endure as a famous artist. Overall, Schnabel creates a very stylish yet captivating film about the young life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Cinematographer Ron Fortunato does excellent work with the film‘s very naturalistic photography for the exterior scenes in New York as well as some unique lighting for some interior scenes as well as scenes set at night. Editor Michael Berenbaum does brilliant work with the editing with its stylish usages of dissolves and jump-cuts to play into Basquiat‘s unconventional approach towards art. Production designer Dan Leigh, set decorator Susan Bode and art director C.J. Simpson, do superb work with the look of the apartments and studios that Basquiat would live and work at as well as the galleries where his art is often in display.
Costume John A. Dunn does nice work with the costumes from the posh clothes of some of the people in the world of art to the dresses that some of the women wear. Sound editor Ira Spiegel does terrific work with the sound as it‘s mostly low-key to play into the sense of silence in how some create paintings as well as scenes where Basquiat tries to play music with his band. The film’s music by John Cale and Julian Schnabel is wonderful as it‘s very low-key with its emphasis on piano and guitar-based music while music supervisor Susan Jacobs creates a dazzling soundtrack that features music by the Rolling Stones, Public Image Ltd., David Bowie, Tom Waits, the Pogues, Bill Laswell, Them, Iggy Pop, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, and many others.
The casting by Sheila Jaffe and Georgianna Walken is fantastic as it features some notable appearances from Vincent Gallo as an artist, Sam Rockwell as a street thug, Michael Badalucco as a deli counterman, Willem Dafoe as an electrician early in the film, Courtney Love as a woman Basquiat would have a tryst with, Tatum O’Neal as a rich woman looking to buy one of Basquiat’s paintings, and Christopher Walken as a journalist who interviews Basquiat as he tries to understand the meaning of his work. Elina Lowensohn is terrific as the art enthusiast Annina Nosei who wants to expose Basquiat to the art world while Parker Posey is wonderful as the art gallery director who would help expose Basquiat to the public. Dennis Hopper is excellent as the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who would become the agent that would make Basquiat rich as he is also friend of Andy Warhol. Benicio del Toro is amazing as Basquiat’s friend Benny who is part of Basquiat’s circle early on as he tries to cope with his friend’s success and how it’s changed him.
Gary Oldman is superb as the artist Milo who is a friend of Basquiat as he tries to help him cope with fame. Claire Forlani is brilliant as Gina as Basquiat’s girlfriend from the early 80s who also desires to be an artist as she also tries to cope with his sudden fame and changing attitude. Michael Wincott is incredible as Rene Ricard as the famed art critic/poet who discovers Basquiat as he presents him to the world only to feel betrayed. David Bowie is phenomenal as Andy Warhol as Bowie manages to convey many of the quirks and voice mannerisms of the famed pop artist as it is definitely Warhol coming back to life. Finally, there’s Jeffrey Wright in a remarkable performance as Jean-Michel Basquiat as this brilliant artist who would change the landscape of art as he copes with fame and later being admired as Wright bring a charisma and energy to the character.
Basquiat is a tremendously rich film from Julian Schnabel that features a marvelous performance from Jeffrey Wright as the late street artist. Featuring a brilliant soundtrack, compelling ideas on art and commerce, and a supporting cast that includes David Bowie as Andy Warhol. It’s a film that explores the life of one of the finest artists of the 20th Century and the dichotomy he would fact that became the source of his work as an artist. In the end, Basquiat is a majestic and evocative film from Julian Schnabel.
Julian Schnabel Films: Before Night Falls - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse - Miral - The Auteurs #43: Julian Schnabel
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