Basquiat. I love this movie.
I Shot Andy Warhol was not the only 1996 film to feature Andy Warhol as a character. He was also a prominent supporting character in Basquiat. In this film, he’s played by David Bowie and Bowie gives a far different performance than Jared Harris did in I Shot Andy Warhol. Whereas Harris played Andy as a detached voyeur, Bowie’s performance is far more sympathetic. (Of course, it should be noted that Harris and Bowie were playing Andy Warhol at very different points in the artist’s life. Harris played the younger, pre-shooting Warhol. Bowie played the older, post-shooting Warhol.)
Then again, it’s not just Andy Warhol who is portrayed more positively in Basquiat than in I Shot Andy Warhol. The entire New York art scene is portrayed far more positively in Basquiat. Whereas I Shot Andy Warhol was a film about an outsider who was destined to forever remain an outsider, Basquiat is a film about an outsider who becomes an insider. On top of that, Basquiat was directed by a fellow insider, painter Julian Schnabel.
The film itself is a biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat (very well played by Jeffrey Wright), the graffiti artist who, in the 1980s, briefly became one of the superstars of the New York art scene. However, it’s less of a conventional biopic and more of a meditation on what it means to be an artist. Throughout the film, Basquiat looks up to the New York skyline and sees a surfer riding a wave across the sky. The image itself is never explicitly explained. We never learn why, specifically, Basquiat visualizes a surfer. But then again, that’s what makes the surfer a perfect symbol of Basquiat’s artistic sensibility and talent. It’s a reminder that, while we can appreciate an artist’s work, only the artist can truly understand what that work is saying. All attempts to try to explain or categorize art are as pointless as trying to understand why that surfer is in the sky. Ultimately, the why is not as important as the simple fact that the surfer is there.
The film follows Basquiat as he goes from living on the streets to being a protegé of Andy Warhol’s and, until he overdosed on heroin, one of the shining lights of the New York art scene. Along the way, Basquiat struggles to maintain a balance between art and the business. In one of the key scenes of the film, an empty-headed suburbanite (Tatum O’Neal) looks at Basquiat’s work and whines that there’s too much green. She just can’t handle all of that green.
Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol provides this film with a heart. When Bowie first appears — having lunch with a German art dealer played by Dennis Hopper — one’s natural instinct is to assume that Bowie as Warhol is stunt casting. However, Bowie quickly proves that instinct to be wrong. As opposed to many of the actors who have played Andy Warhol over the years, Bowie gives an actual performance. Instead of resorting to caricature, Bowie plays Warhol as being mildly bemused by both his fame and the world in general.
Basquiat also develops a close friendship with another artist. Gary Oldman may be playing a character named Albert Milo but it’s obvious from the moment that he first appears that he’s playing the film’s director, Julian Schnabel. If there was any doubt, Schnabel’s studio stands in for Milo’s studio. When Milo shows off his work, he’s showing off Schnabel’s work. When Albert Milo introduced Basquiat to his parents, the nice old couple is played by Julian Schnabel’s actual parents. It’s perhaps not surprising that Albert Milo is presented as being one of the most important and popular artists in New York City. In a film full of bitchy characters, Albert Milo is unique in that literally everyone likes and respects him. And yet Gary Oldman gives such a good and heartfelt performance that you can’t hold it against the character that he happens to be perfect. There’s a small but touching scene in which Albert Milo and his daughter share a dance in front of one of Schnabel’s gigantic canvases. Of course, Milo’s daughter is played by Julian Schnabel’s daughter.
The entire cast is full of familiar actors. Willem DaFoe appears as a sculptor. Christopher Walken plays a hilariously vapid interviewer. Courtney Love plays a groupie. Benicio Del Toro plays Basquiat’s best friend. Parker Posey shows up as gallery owner Mary Boone. Michael Wincott plays Rene Ricard, the somewhat infamous art critic who was among the first to celebrate the work of both Basquiat and Schnabel. For once, the use of familiar actors does not sabotage the effectiveness of the film. If anything, it helps to explain why Basquiat was so determined to make it. There’s a magical scene where a then-unknown Basquiat peeks through a gallery window and sees Andy Warhol, Albert Milo, and Bruno Bischofberger. However, the film’s audience sees David Bowie, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper. What both Basquiat and the audience have in common is that they’re both seeing bigger-than-life stars.
Basquiat is an often magical and poignant film and I absolutely love it.