Among the elements that distinguished the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat was its merging of text and image, or rather its use of text as image, words crossed-out or repeated until meanings shift or dissolve, often hovering between the cryptic and the forthright. Given that the traditional documentary already embraces the incorporation of on-screen text, it wouldn’t seem too great a leap for a film about Basquiat to approach its subject with a like sense of lexicographical adventure. Tamra Davis’ Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child—kind of a condescending title the more you think about it—does in fact use lots of text—it’s a rare documentary that endeavours to give running credits for stills—but does so in a manner that’s neither mimetic nor especially enlightening. The Radiant Child is however a solid introduction to the artist, and for that reason should be widely seen.
The film was prompted by Davis’ re-discovery of video interviews she recorded with Basquiat before grief consigned them to a drawer for 20 years. Davis and Basquiat were friends, and the film was clearly undertaken with tremendous affection, which makes The Radiant Child a very moving experience, yet prompts an approach so cautious as to fall short of offering rigorous insight into Basquiat’s art, celebrity, or private life. Basquiat was prolific, imaginative, wildly ambitious, intelligent, handsome and charismatic, but he died at 27, too young to be expected to comment meaningfully on his own work—not that any artist at any age is required to provide such commentary. So the lost interviews, in which Basquiat seems reticent and a bit self-conscious, are not enough to make The Radiant Child a revelation. An overstocked cast of interview subjects are recruited, but they’re either cut short or generalize. Poet John Giorno rightly attributes Basquiat’s textual innovations to his exposure to William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, yet fails to mention Brion Gysin, who co-founded the technique with Burroughs and was, you know, a painter. Fellow-painter Julian Schnabel, who launched his filmmaking career with a Basquiat bio-pic, seems like he could have contributed much more but has his comments squeezed. No one says much about the implications of Basquiat’s transition from street graffiti to graffiti-infused paintings. Historian Nelson George however does manage to shed some light on the role of racial tensions in Basquiat’s work.
Basquiat by Warhol
I don’t want to get carried away itemizing what The Radiant Child doesn’t do. What it does do is provide a vivid sense of the Lower Manhattan underground art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, probably the last time New York really mattered as a cultural vanguard—not coincidentally this was also the last time any normal person could afford to live there. Davis makes terrific use of archival tapes of Basquiat’s noise band Gray, of his appearances on TV Party, and of the artist at work. Davis also makes a case for the notion that Basquiat and Andy Warhol were, for a time at least, each other’s closest friends. In some only slightly perverse way, Warhol may have been a father figure to Basquiat, whose real father was a middle-class Haitian-American living just across the river in Brooklyn, and with whom Basquiat endured an uneasy relationship. Davis only hints at this unease, perhaps out of respect for Basquiat Sr., perhaps out of an unwillingness to psychoanalyze her dead friend. All of which is perfectly respectable, yet leaves The Radiant Child fraught with half-measures, a quality quite different from its subject who, for better or worse, threw himself headlong and devotedly into a truncated life of high art and dizzying fame.