The hero is dead before this tale begins; you fall in love with him anyway. In the opening moments of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” Basquiat looks up through his babydoll curled lashes, through the camera, through the screen, through you and smiles so deeply that the corners of his mouth roll into themselves. Maybe he’ll make it. But there is no alternate ending, no director’s cut. Your heart will break before an hour and a half is out.
He was gone 22 years ago of a heroin overdose at that mythically fateful age of 27 and the majority of this film sat in a drawer for its own 20-odd years. Director Tamra Davis (“Half Baked,” “Billy Madison,” wife of Beastie Boy Mike D) has brought out these remnants of her time with her friend Basquiat and pinned them against a backdrop of interviews and archival footage that brings not just Basquiat but downtown 80s New York back for a full exhibition.
Basquiat drifted out of a comfortable Haitian/Puerto Rican middle-class home in Brooklyn and into New York at 17 in the late 70s to live on his charm and change from the floor of the Mudd Club. His epigrammatic graffiti, under the tag SAMO, won him the attention of the bohemian downtown scene where you could call yourself an artist and become Keith Haring, call yourself a singer and become Madonna, call yourself a filmmaker and become Jim Jarmusch.
On film the power of Basquiat’s work and the naturalness of his creation of it is in full evidence. His talent was “boom for real” as he was fond of saying about things he liked. To testify to that, Davis rounded up representatives of every part of Basquiat’s life – childhood friends (Al Diaz), lovers (Suzanne Mallouk), artists (Julian Schnabel), gallerists (Larry Gagosian), collectors, East Coast friends (Glenn O’Brien), West Coast friends (Davis herself).
Longtime on-and-off girlfriend Mallouk is the steady voice through the film, delivering one of the most devastating moments toward the end. Fab 5 Freddy, a steadfast friend, is the closest there is to having Basquiat narrate, as he relates Basquiat’s inner life and feelings to time and circumstance.
Ultimately, there is a descent into paranoia and depression for Basquiat, aided by the death of his close friend Andy Warhol and humiliations delivered by his father. Davis handles this swiftly and deftly, not taking away any of Basquiat’s radiance that she has committed so well to film.
She was at the opening night at Film Forum. Humble and slightly flustered, she answered questions, listened to reminiscences and emphasized how glad she was to be showing the film in its spiritual hometown.
Walking out into the damp, warm New York evening after, blocks and decades away from the heart of the onscreen action, you feel the loss of the scene, of the possibilities it held, of Basquiat. You hear Julian Schnabel in your head: “New York, in the summer, it’s a motherfucker.”