Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child premiered yesterday at New York’s Film Forum, and director Tamra Davis stuck around after the 8 pm screening for a short chat with the audience, discussing her documentary film’s inspiration, and how the whole story unfolded. From the years 1983 to 1986, as Basquiat’s star was swiftly rising, Davis, then a film student and gallery assistant, interviewed her close friend and filmed him painting in his studio, amassing about four hours of footage. When Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27, Davis put the project away in safe keeping, only recently deciding to revisit it. After much persistence, Basquiat’s father Gerard gave Davis his blessing to access his son’s art archive (for 1996’s Basquiat, director Julian Schnabel did not gain the estate’s permission; in fact, Davis says Schnabel himself painted all the artwork shown in the movie), and she then began interviewing key figures in the artist’s life, including his long-time girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch.
The result is a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait. Davis’ own dialogues—which capture Basquiat’s boyish charm and easy smile in closely cropped frames—are interspersed with other interviews, films, and photographs of the artist and his work (including a great clip of him walking in a Comme Des Garcons runway show). Thanks to Davis’ fascinating documentary, the record of Basquiat’s life is a bit more complete, but as far as the filmmaker is concerned, she says the piece is really “a love letter from me to Jean.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is showing at Film Forum through Aug. 3. Davis’ entire transcript is part of a traveling exhibition, called Basquiat, currently in Basel, Switzerland.
—Julianne De La Torre
Photo: Basquiat, courtesy of Lee Jaffe