Basquiat (1996)

A biopic of the Haitian-American graffiti artist turned genuine painter. Basquiat is incarnated by a twinkle-eyed Michael Wright as a dreadlocked martyr who fulfils the cliche of living his life fast, turning the film from a study of the 80s art scene into a pretty familiar junkie doom downward spiral. It's a hip project on the hip-hop life, and has attracted a lot of celebrity cameos as New York City art types: Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Parker Posey, even Tatum O'Neal.

Most of the attention has gone to David Bowie's withered Andy Warhol, though it's a funny cartoon of the original rather than - as Jared Harris managed in I Shot Andy Warhol - an actual performance in the role. The real stand-out turn comes from Michael Wincott, usually seen as a villain (The Crow, 1492), as the hustling gay critic who first takes note of Basquiat's talent and is taken along for the ride, discovering before anyone else a frightening shallowness that gives the film - which mostly sticks to the misunderstood and abused genius line - an occasional kick.

Like almost all painter biopics, Basquiat finds it easier to deal with on-off romances and stormy friendships than the art that presumably makes its hero worthy of a full-length film. There are scenes of Basquiat at work, and even a glimpse of Warhol working with an assistant who has been hired to urinate on canvas as a literal 'piss artist', but the script keeps having to shore up Basquiat's status by mentioning how much his paintings are selling for. In the end, you're a lot more irritated by Basquiat's wastefulness than convinced of his genius.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: The Ham & High (issue unknown)


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