Jean-Michel Basquiat stormed the art world after seemingly appearing out of nowhere in the late 1970s. In reality, the art world had failed to recognize what a creative place nowhere had become. Part of the “Downtown 500,” a term coined to describe the notion that New York culture had been taken over by a small set of creative, influential club-and-gallery-dwelling nighttime people, Basquiat first earned attention as half a graffiti-art team that left cryptic, pointed messages tagged as “Samo.” In a few years, he went from enigma to superstar, earning millions while attracting acclaim, press, and inevitable derision. But Basquiat didn’t make it out of the decade alive, dying of his heroin habit in 1988 at age 27.
Tamra Davis—making her documentary-feature debut after a career of directing hip music videos and not-so-hip movies like Crossroads—resists the easy path of turning Basquiat’s story into a simple perils-of-fame cautionary tale, though Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child makes that subtext difficult to ignore. Davis was friends with Basquiat, and brings in some never-before-seen interview footage throughout the film. Nothing in that long-lost talk proves especially revealing, but it does capture Basquiat with his guard down. At one point, when asked what authors influence him, he answers the question, then explains why he provided that answer out of several possible answers, in the interest of crafting his image. Mostly, however, the film feels like the work of a friend. Davis lets her interview subjects’ references to Basquiat’s darker, selfish sides speak for themselves without digging too deeply. But what The Radiant Child lacks in investigative rigor, it compensates for with intimacy, talking to friends and associates who help explain Basquiat’s brief life and brilliant, truncated career.
Now a canonical museum fixture, Basquiat earned more fame than respect in his time, particularly among the art cognoscenti. That’s partly because his vibrant art—influenced by expressionism, pop art, and street fashion—broke radically with what had come before, partly because of its instant, eye-catching appeal, and partly because he was black. In one particularly painful bit of archival footage, a clueless interviewer goes on about the “primal” quality of Basquiat’s work as the artist’s frustration mounts. Money, however, came easier than respect, and The Radiant Child’s chronicle of Basquiat’s ascent from couch-surfing bohemian to hardworking, fame-seeking superstar to junkie burnout has a depressing Behind The Music-like familiarity. Samo stood for “same old shit,” and it ended up doubling as self-fulfilling prophecy. To Davis’ credit, both Basquiat’s work and the downtown scene from which he emerged keep their vibrant allure. The artist’s arresting images speak for themselves, even though now only the bystanders are left to tell his story.