The film, Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, was showing at the Film Forum in Soho for the past few weeks and I finally went to see it Sunday evening. Jean-Michel was an internationally acclaimed artist who came from a middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican family who lived in Brooklyn. As a teenager Jean-Michel left home and went to live downtown Manhattan, specifically in the Village, East Village and Soho neighborhoods. He often lived on the streets or couch-surfed with friends and girlfriends. Just two years after he left home, he had become a successful artist and ultimately a millionaire. It is the dream of most struggling artists (including myself) but yet his story had such a tragic ending.
Personal Reflections of Jean-Michel’s Work
I had first heard of Jean-Michel when I was a child during the 1980s. Jean-Michel was plastered across many magazines and news programs. He was also the same age as my mother and being an artistic person and fan of art, he had become somewhat of a topic of discussion in our home. The fact that Basquiat was so successful at such a young age and being African-Latino American made him something of an anomaly in the art world; but it made him an inspiration to all other artists of color.
Somewhere in all of that, I learned about him and his work but my knowledge of his life story was still limited. More exposure of his work and life story came to me during my high school years when I began to study contemporary art on school trips to local museums and on my own. The film Basquiat came out in 1996 while I was still in high school, but I did not see it until a few years later when I was in college. By then, I had studied a little more of his art work in my Art History courses and found that the film was a great introduction to him and his life story. It left me appreciating him and his art work even more.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
The documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child seems almost like a companion piece to the critically-acclaimed bio-pic, Basquiat. The Radiant Child was directed and produced by one of Basquiat’s friends and art colleagues, Tamra Davis. The opening lines of the film tell us that two years before he died, Davis had done an interview with Basquiat at a hotel in Los Angeles and after his death, locked away all of the footage without looking at it again for 20 years.
The film then opens with blaring shots of a gritty ugly-beautiful New York City. Images of burned out blocks, vacant lots, demolished and falling buildings, trashy streets, graffiti ridden buildings, trains and subway cars, classic hip hop and 80s rock and pop songs blaring through portable radios and later providing a soundtrack to pivotal events of Jean-Michel’s life.
Immediately we are taken into the vibe of the old downtown Manhattan before it became the trendy haven of the well-to-do. The Radiant Child captures its vibe perfectly using old video footage, pictures and voice-overs of those who were there. We are told that Jean-Michel was part of an artist collective known as the Downtown 500. A group of multi-cultural, fashionable and artistic people who all knew each other and traveled in the same circles.
It is a period of time that I personally love and cherish and wish still existed to some extent (minus the rampant drug use and homelessness, but maybe that is what made it all so ugly-beautiful…?). At this point, I am engrossed and pulled directly in.
The Radiant Child then begins to document Basquiat’s early life and rise to fame using photos, film footage and interviews with Basquiat himself as well as friends, fellow artists, museum and gallery curators, art brokers and ex-girlfriends.
Of all of the interviews, the images of Jean-Michel speaking are the most potent and offer the most intimacy between himself and the viewer. He appears shy and soft-spoken but all of his answers were so revealing. In fact, at times it appears that even he is surprised at how much he reveals of himself. As a viewer and fan of his work, I felt like he was offering a secret glimpse into himself; a side of him that he probably did not share too often with others---at least that is my perception.
This of course of was juxtaposed with images of Basquiat as the party child and then as the manic artist who could listen to classical music, watch TV, paint and entertain friends and art buyers all at once. He had started a band even though he could not play (how bad-ass is that?), loved to dance and spoke several languages. Jean-Michel was popular, competitive, lovable, adored, envied and of course misunderstood. He was loved by women including Madonna and was thronged by all of the hangers-on of that scene. He was a genius artist, prolific and quite successful.
In his lifetime, he produced a staggering 1500 works of art. He also collaborated with Andy Warhol, an art icon and a person who was also a father figure to Jean-Michel. Still, with all of his success, Jean-Michel was plagued by doubts, the pressure of the art world (the critics, constant demand and rejection of his artwork, the seeming resistance to display his work in prominent museums and galleries---ironically all of which who showcase him now) and a strained relationship with his father.
In the Radiant Child, his friends recount the difficulties in his relationship with his father and how Jean-Michel often felt rejected and still sought his father’s love, attention and acceptance. It seemed from their narratives that despite his success and financial gains, his father was still stern and possibly not as accepting of Jean-Michel. An explanation is not given and his father is not interviewed or quoted in the film to share with us why this was. (I’m not even sure if his father is still with us, so that could be a reason as well). One can assume that Jean-Michel’s drug use and lifestyle might have something to do it. There is also the possibility that he could have been envious of his son’s success, but no one really wants to go there. (At least I don’t.)
Also, while he developed other positive relationships with friends and lovers, he seemed to also experience fallouts and break-ups with even his closest girlfriends and also with Andy Warhol. When Warhol passed away before they could reconcile, this left Jean-Michel especially distressed and exacerbated his drug use.
In any case, it was all of this that led to Jean-Michel’s persistent battle with drugs and eventually his downfall. The film is not clear when he began using heroin or if it was the only drug he had ever used. There are hints at him being somewhat of a party guy and perhaps sampled other drugs including marijuana and alcohol, but not to the degree perhaps of his heroin use. Nevertheless, these specifics did not bother me. I was more focused on his genius and his incredible artwork.
The positive and negative aspects of his lifestyle only made him seem more “normal” and “authentic.” I was also inspired by his clear sense of his artwork, goals and the direction that he originally sought. His drive, ambition and focus inspires me to be a better writer, artist and to push myself beyond the lazy hobbies of web surfing and TV watching to pursue my own dreams.
What I also loved about The Radiant Child was that its pace seemed to mirror the rise and fall of Jean-Michel’s own life. We are thrown into the mix from the beginning, much in the way it seems Jean-Michel had fallen in with the downtown crowd during the late 1970s-early 1980s. His rise, described as “meteoric” by most critics, is also mirrored this way on film. His climb to fame takes up most of the film, as it should, and then there is a quick descent into his drug addiction and then he is gone….
For almost an hour of the film, I felt like his presence was so alive that toward the end, I guess I almost forgot that he was no longer with us----almost. The depiction of the last year of his life was probably the most emotional segment of the film, at least for me. As viewers we see pieces of his last exhibition where he seems to eerily foreshadow his own death. Most of the work was dark and about death. There are pictures of a man riding with death, a hieroglyphic-like family-tree that says “man dies” repeatedly. Ironically, despite all of his fears over that last show, it was well received by critics.
What was probably most disturbing to me was that Jean-Michel returned to New York City so many times throughout his last years, despite his unhappiness and troubles in the city. It would seem and from the narrations of his friends and colleagues that he was much happier and more productive while living and working in Los Angeles and Hawaii. Months before he passed, he was even able to kick his habit in Hawaii, but returned to New York where he ultimately succumbed to his addiction and overdosed. I wondered if there was a connection between his relationship with New York and his addiction to heroin.
Being a native New Yorker myself and having a love-hate relationship with this city, this particular part of the film left me contemplating my own relationship with my native city. There are so many parts of me that want to leave and there are so many parts of me that are drawn to New York and all that it has meant to me in the past. Like Jean-Michel, I have also left New York a few times but always returned. Of course this is my own projection, but that part of the film especially haunts me. It makes me wonder if Jean-Michel had not returned to New York City at that time, would he be with us today? Critics will say that he could have purchased or used drugs anywhere around the world. And this is true. We are only left to wonder what Jean-Michel was feeling or thinking when he decided to use again that day. His friends point out that they were heading to a Run DMC concert, planning to arrive in a limo and all decked out, so surely he was expecting to have a good time.
I guess we will never know, just as we will never know what else he could have done and what more he could have accomplished had he lived. Perhaps that is the allure and intrigue of his works and his legacy.
The Radiant Child will be available on DVD in late October 2010. I highly recommend it and will be adding this film to my collection.
The Radiant Child
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Director: Tamra Davis
Writers: Tamra Davis
Starring: Jean-Michel Basquiat and friends or those who knew him.