Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten, or unknown film and TV credits, continues this week with works featuring David Bowie.
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Written by Lech J. Majewski, John Bowe and Julian Schnabel
Basquiat isn’t a biopic where you come out at the end feeling like you know the whole story of painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s, life. It may be better that way. Trust in biopics has always been too freely given, knowing that they can exaggerate but believing in them anyway. It makes enjoying films, like The Danish Girl, complicated by how much a quick Google search shows disloyalty to the facts. By forcing viewers to follow-up if they want more context, Basquiat removes any chances of being confused as the singular text on the graffiti artist’s life.
In one of the few times Basquiat uses narration it’s not to produce a fact sheet on where Jean-Michel was at this point in his life. It’s to talk about Vincent Van Gogh and his glamorization of the unknown artist who must suffer, lose an ear, and die before people concede to notice. Basquiat wants to break that fantasy open with Jean-Michel (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) and his friend, Benny (Benicio Del Toro) openly discussing the impossible position artists are put in by their public—get clean but don’t ruin your art; never sell out but give us more of the same; artist or Black artist. Christopher Walken asks that particular zinger in a slimy interview of empty apologies, where the one line of inquiry I cop to being interested in was the meaning behind some of the symbols in Basquiat’s art. Thrown in with the rest of the lowball comments, is this desire to decode and understand in the same category of overstepping? The comparison of Basquiat to Van Gogh is unfairly flawed. Basquiat suffered plenty for his art but his name has never had the mainstream traction of a Vincent Van Gogh or Warhol.
Going through the typical artist film boxes—growing fame, loss of friends, increased drug use—what there isn’t much of in this movie is strained deliberation over life decisions. Basquiat’s art comes first and how the rest falls falls. It’s selfish but without the personal consciousness of being selfish; of thinking before, or after, acting.
Basquiat is Wright’s movie, and no one, Bowie’s Andy Warhol included, is more than a side character. Nonetheless, wearing Warhol’s actual wig, glasses and jacket, there aren’t too many people more qualified in the ways of the fickle public than the man who made bold career changes his signature. Portraying Warhol’s eccentricities with a smile that never turns mocking or too exaggerated, it’s a shame his friendship with Basquiat takes such a secondary position, more acknowledged than seen to great length. When Warhol dies Bowie’s song, “A Small Plot of Land,” plays behind Basquiat’s grief, a crossover between actor and character that stirs a lot of feeling.
Verdict: Buried Treasure
Basquiat is a film where actors like Bowie, Del Toro, and Claire Forlani, as Basquiat’s girlfriend, Gina, are putting all they have into small moments and looks. Not the greatest use of their talents but an imperfect gem of a film.
Check back tomorrow for David Bowie as the Stringer Bell of a gang operation.