Is it a trend or just an accident? In any event, the old Andy Warhol crowd has inspired two films this year, and you can envision a time when they'll wind up on a double bill in what's left of the revival houses. For now, the more interesting of the two is not I Shot Andy Warhol but Basquiat, which confers sainthood upon Jean-Michel Basquiat, the nineteen-year-old graffiti writer who in the go-go Eighties was transformed into a celebrity artist by the tastemakers of downtown Manhattan, championed by Warhol and died at age 27 of a heroin overdose.
Basquiat's rookie writer/director is fellow New York painter Julian Schnabel, and he clearly knows both his old friend and the territory. The pompous art dealers, rich collectors eager to throw their cash at the Next Big Thing and sundry parasites who contribute to Basquiat's rise and fall are painted with devastating accuracy, and the performance of young Jeffrey Wright in the title role is tinged with just the right mixture of astonishment, bohemian temperament and personal torment. He managed to destroy himself, but he had plenty of help.
Luckily, the film is neither gloomy nor overtly "tragic." Instead, Schnabel lays on his dark wit, and his big, can-you-spot-the-star cast provides all manner of pleasure. David Bowie's pale, desiccated Andy Warhol captures the oddity and studied detachment of the man perfectly. Dennis Hopper and Gary Oldman are just right as a pair of opportunists who want their own pieces of the first black painter to hit the big time in white New York. Willem Dafoe does a beautiful bit as an electrician with some heavy-duty artistic delusions, and the duke of weird, Christopher Walken, pops up as a TV interviewer completely baffled by Basquiat's answers. Michael Wincott is the bitchy hanger-on Rene Ricard, and Courtney Love drops by as a downtown type named Big Pink.
The director also has installed no fewer than five members of his own family in the cast, but that doesn't diminish the strange appeal of this tale about success, self-absorption and salesmanship in the art world. Some may fail to grasp the artistic significance of finger-painting in a pool of maple syrup or painting the word "Ali" on a garbage-can cover, but the sight of young Basquiat at the deli, hitting Warhol up for $3,000 so he can buy a big can of caviar and put the racist counterman in his place, is a lovely thing to watch. How good a painter was he? Who cares?
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In the end, Basquiat is worn down by his accidental fame and bad habits. What he really wants to do, he says, is "go to Maui, open a tequila factory, play music again and give up this painting shit."
If that isn't evidence enough to canonize the guy, what is?
Written and directed by Julian Schnabel. With Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Claire Forlani and Gary Oldman.