Dir: Julian Schnabel, 1996. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman. Drama.

In Julian Schnabel’s intimate portrait of an artist, Jeffery Wright exploded on the film scene as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned international painter. The story is about his rise and fall amidst the New York elite, his friendship with Andy Warhol, and the women he loves.

After a successful painting career, Julian Schnabel (Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) made his feature debut as a writer-director in this tribute to the life of his friend. His screenplay is simple, but efficient and his direction is gentle and compassionate -- bringing out wonderful performances from a brilliantly cast group of actors. He also does a great job of incorporating the music to define the times and emotions of the moment.

In one of his first roles, Jeffery Wright (Broken Flowers) carries the film with a quiet voice and unassuming body language. He presents a young man with great potential, but a large capacity for unhappiness and self-loathing. Although very reserved, it is a heart-breaking tour-de-force performance.

When we first see Basquiat he is a little boy standing with his mother before Picasso’s “Guernica.” The painting is so beautiful that she weeps, until looking towards the child, who stands bright-eyed with a crown of light atop his head.

We see him next as an adult, sleeping in a cardboard box, trying to become a rock star in SoHo before being “discovered” and launching to the top of the art world. As his success and celebrity grows, Basquiat copes with a drug addiction that would claim his life at twenty-eight.

David Bowie (The Prestige) plays the most interesting and sympathetic version of Andy Warhol that I’ve seen. Speaking softly, Bowie still manages to shine in every scene he is in.

Dennis Hopper (True Romance) is hilariously stuffy and anal retentive as German “Bruno Bischofberger”—Warhol’s long time friend and manager.

Benicio del Toro (Che) plays Basquiat’s half-brother with charm and ease as the only one who may really care about Jean-Michel.

Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) plays “Albert Milo”—the fictitous alter-ego representation of Schnabel himself. Although often known for his over the top performances, Oldman is a powerful presence even in one of his most subtle roles.

Michael Wincott (The Crow) is great as the story’s narrator and poet of the streets, “Rene Ricard.” He plays the character with a great mixture of bitchiness and deeply felt honesty.

Parker Posey (Waiting for Guffman), as often is the case, is cast as a woman with serious ego and rudeness. In this case as “Mary Boone”—a ruthless harpy of a person who rules the New York art scene of the day.

Christopher Walken (Wedding Crashers) and Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ) turn in small but fun characters—Walken as a magazine reporter and Dafoe as an electrician/sculptor for whom Basquiat briefly works.

Basquiat is one of the best first efforts by a filmmaker, as well as one of the finest works of cinema about an artist to ever come along.

Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Apr 27, 2009 12:32pm
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