Movie Review: Basquiat

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Summary: Great, if you're into that sort of thing. Really Good, if you're everyone else.

Main plot: this is the story of Jean Michael Basquiat, a black artist (painter) that made it big in the 80s, and his relationships with people, especially that of Andy Warhol. Like many artists, he leads a troubled life and its complexity helps shape his creative expression.

Good points: this is a good movie no matter how you look at it. But it is a different movie to different people for different reasons, which (IMHO) is part of what makes the movie an extraordinary effort. For those who aren't into art, it's an interesting introspective to the lifestyles and other qualities of one particular artist's life without being overbearing. (Did you see "Zipped"? Talk about over-bearing.) Throughout the movie, you can see how one thing leads to another, how people in the biz are, how fickle they are, and how seemingly arbitrary people's tastes fall in and out of favor.

For those into art, especially modern art a la Andy Warhol, without having him be the centerpiece, it's an entertaining view of the more subtle aspects of an artist's life play out that the common viewer might not appreciate. (The strange twists and quirkiness one goes through when trying to design a new work.)

The characters are played well, the direction is top-notch, and the script is carefully balanced to appeal to a wide audience without compromising either end of the spectrum.

Bad points: While minor points, I felt that certain events were glossed over too easily, that people didn't seem to react strongly enough to exessively good or bad situations. It also seemed that some developments were too methodically placed in the artist's lap. The major plot is rather understated (the relationship that develops between Jean-Michael and Andy Warhol, impeccably played by David Bowie). The climax at the end comes strongly, but less than expectedly because of the subtlety of this point. I can't see how it could have been improved -- making it more obvious might have cheapened it, and it could not have been less clear.

Several major events are almost missed if you aren't paying attention: his getting aids, his reaction to being "discovered" about his upper- middle class background, and his seeming indifference to most of the important things that we (as "everyone else") considers important. These are great points and add significant substance to the plot, but the subtlety (and therefore, their importance) makes them very easily missed.

The movie will probably have great reviews because it's an art film, and as I always say, critics can't pan an "art film" or it makes them seem unsophisticated. (e.g., every review of a Jane Austin film) I'm not saying that this movie doesn't deserve good reviews, just that the reviews that you see may be full of politically correct verbiage, but effectively vacuous. The movie is direct and unpretentious, but it's also coming out in a desert summer of pretty bad movies, so it'll seem much better by contrast.
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