Epitaph for an artist's life

'Basquiat' probes self-destruction

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The artist as dysfunctional outsider is a familiar cultural image; in Basquiat the archetype comes to life, in the hands of a first-time filmmaker.

Writer-director Julian Schnabel (a painter who has long since mastered the art-world fame game) treats his troubled subject with respect and sympathy. He humanizes an artist who could just as easily have been interpreted as an inconsequential drug addict. We can care about Jean-Michel Basquiat as a creative spirit with more talent than skill, struggling to survive in a bloodthirsty commercial culture.

When the movie opens, Jean-Michel (Jeffrey Wright) is a homeless 19-year-old who spends his days decorating New York buildings with poetical constructions signed ''Samo.''

A chance encounter with the late Andy Warhol (David Bowie) catapults the young man to fame, swamped and adored by art mavens, rich collectors, chic scene-makers.

For the confused and insecure Jean-Michel, success and escalating drug abuse make a disastrous combination. He could not cope, turned on old friends, ruined relationships and lost his artistic focus. Before his 28th birthday, he died of a drug overdose.

The movie touched off a lot of sniping in New York art circles over how accurately Mr. Schnabel depicts friendships, alliances, rifts, slights and favors in the story. It's impossible to assess for the historical accuracy of his account, and ultimately unnecessary.

The movie is less important as biography than as an exploration of the hard road artists follow. Mr. Schnabel's script too often wanders off on fruitless tangents, but Mr. Wright keeps bringing it back into focus with honest, insightful work.

He has the help of a fine supporting cast, including Benicio Del Toro (The Usual Suspects), Parker Posey (Party Girl) and Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker's Dracula).

The soundtrack, with disparate sounds from Grandmaster Flash to The Pogues, is strikingly well-matched to the movie. Much of it was, Mr. Schnabel tells us, drawn from the late artist's actual record collection.

Published Oct. 4, 1996.