Haunting. Jean-Michel Basquiat was only nineteen year's old when he shot to fame in the New York scene and became recognized as one of the most exciting artists around. In one giant step he was transfigured from a homeless graffiti artist into a major player in the glamorous world of art. His work was desired both by collectors and museums. The world seemed to be his oyster for a time, but by 27 he was dead. This film is a celebration of his life. And a haunting tale it is.

Haunting. To watch a parade of real-life characters march past: artist Andy Warhol (David Bowie), poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), curator Henry Geldzahler (Paul Bartel), art dealers Annina Nosei (Elina Lownsohn), and Mary Boone (Parker Posey), and restauranteur Michael Chow (in this case as himself). Not that the fictional characters are any less impressive. They all become part of the whole image in a way that shapes it into a new reality. Claire Forlani, Gary Oldman, Benicio del Toro, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Courtney Love are among those adding layer upon layer to the unraveling tale.

The entire cast is a delight to watch because there are no small roles in this film. Even with little dialogue or a limited appearance on screen, an impact is made by each and every one and a particular moment is established. No doubt about it, this film is a MUST SEE, with superb points flying in too many directions to mention them all. Writer/director Schnabel must, of course, be listed as well as lead actor Jeffrey Wright, who makes the role of Basquiat his own with his winsome walk and child-like charm. Not only does he captivate us in his first waking movements away from the cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park, but he leads us irresistibly along with him through his entire evolution. Wright has already been hailed several times on previous occasions for his stage work and his screen performance proves that the future holds even more in store. The script is beautifully economic in moving us along without wasting needless time on excess. When Jean-Michel, for example, orders wine in a restaurant we immediately comprehend how much he's changed and what stage of development he's reached in relationship to the world around him.

Haunting. The songs on the soundtrack, ranging from rap to punk to jazz to rock n' roll and pop, contain numbers drawn from Jean-Michel's own record collection. The familiar and already nostalgic notes of the Pogues, the Stones, Iggy Pop, and Bowie are at home alongside Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen.

Haunting. The locations and the feel. Words aren't wasted. Images are striking. Moments have a life of their own. Never losing touch with reality, always holding onto the dream. Simple touches that say so much.

Artist Julian Schnabel who was a close friend of Basquiat, both wrote and directed the film. Their art work was often shown together at various museums and galleries. Tired after years of reading post- mortems on the life of artist Basquiat in newspapers and magazines, Schnabel, a friend in life, decided to try to tell the story himself and it took six years to get the project off the ground. "People should be proud of their abilities, and one would think they would be rewarded for hard work and intelligence. It's a lie. Now that Jean-Michel is dead, we can see this caveat that says 'don't be too talented, or too young, or too beautiful, and certainly not all at the same time.'"

"I wanted to make a movie about Jean-Michel in particular, and about an artist's life in this culture in general. Jean-Michel had the success and fame that an artist wishes to achieve. He burned bright, caught on fire and burned up. He paid the price, sealing his fate, with his early death. He became what he longed to be, and he fulfilled what his audience waited for him to become. Was his life a tragedy? I don't know. He certainly accomplished a lot more than most people do who live to be 80."

Commenting further, Schnabel says, "Jean-Michel was irresistible, charming, handsome, and diabolical. Almost everyone who met him was drawn into his orbit."


© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett