Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a respectfully vivid, accurate, and entertaining homage to a painter who led a radical life and left an ambitious body of work behind after his premature death. The film opens with 1986 footage of Basquiat being interviewed in a hotel room by friends Becky Johnston and director Tamra Davis.
For Basquiat fans, this film will prove essential viewing to flesh out an understanding of downtown New York’s art scene in the 1980s, and to see Basquiat’s pivotal role in this. While Downtown 81 is an awesome fictionalized portrait of Basquiat and his crew, and Julian Schnabel’s feature Basquiat serves as tribute via Schnabel’s dramatic artistic interpretation, Radiant Child offers the best possible documentary coverage of Basquiat’s triumph and demise.
This feature-length film, constructed after Davis unearthed her 10-years-buried Basquiat footage to make a 20-minute short, then buried that another 10 years because of her strong wish to avoid exploitation, contains so much footage of Basquiat painting, partying, and being his charismatic self that one trusts it immediately.
Additionally, Davis has interviewed every affiliated gallerist, among them Diego Cortez, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Annina Nosei, and Jeffrey Deitch, not to mention all of Basquiat’s surviving close friends, including Schnabel, Fab 5 Freddy, Glenn O’Brien, Maripol, and Thurston Moore. The film, organized chronologically to chart Basquiat’s move out of Brooklyn to Manhattan, his beginnings as an itinerant street artist named Samo, his rise to gallery stardom, and his struggles at the end, marks time by showing paintings throughout that commemorate moments in Basquiat’s life.
While the film obviously ends on a melancholy note as a warning about sudden fame and fortune, this film is ultimately more than a documentary about one man. It is a well-made testament, from the actual participants’ perspectives, about what conspired in New York to allow Basquiat to shine. For viewers who recall those times, it may feel nostalgic; for viewers who glorify 1980s New York, this film will solidify New York’s greatness; viewers who are artists may identify most, as one experiences a glimpse of a New York lifestyle that has come and gone.