Julian Schnabel's directorial debut about the life of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is indie filmmaking at its very best: vibrant, formally assured and not least highly insightful. All of the above are quite remarkable achievements for a debutant. But the latter point, which is arguably the key to the film's effect, is no fluke. Schnabel is himself both a painter and an art connoisseur. As such, Basquiat is a painter's rendition of a painter's rendition of street art and street-life. A community portrayed from the inside with sensible subjectivity.
In the title role, Jeffrey Wright gives his first lead performance with confidence and bravura. He leads us on a meandering tour of Basquiat's New York City life, where we encounter numerous fascinating characters – some real, some concocted by Schnabel. They are brought to life by a magnificent ensemble of character actors, most of whom tackle the playful script with a slight and apt ironic distance. Willem Dafoe tells us he's happy that he never got his big break. Christopher Walken is softly expressive in a small part as an interviewer. And two of the hottest new acting talents as of late, Benicio Del Toro and Michael Wincott, are both brilliant. Still, the real attention-grabber here may well be David Bowie, who gives a heartfelt rendering of cult artist Andy Warhol.
The extensive and impressive supporting cast must merely be considered the icing on this cake, however. Because it's the intimate portrayal of Basquiat himself that makes this one of best biopics of the year. Basquiat is a visually artistic film about a renowned visual artist. Schnabel's style gives the film a personal quality, but not to such a degree that it compromises the story of title character himself. It's a nostalgic, humorous and respectful film.
Copyright © 11.01.1998 F G Fevang