‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child’ Directed by Tamra Davis (2010)

Been chewing through a lot of documentaries lately, and the Billy Corben directed Limelight (on club owner Peter Gatien) inspired me to reach for this one again. Glad I did, as this must’ve shot well over my head the first time. Directed by Tamra Davis, close friend of the subject, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child captures the spirit of a time as well as that of the artist like no other documentary has before.

We’ve always categorised our favourite docos as having the right mixture of a few key elements. A documentary that can pull in someone with no former knowledge of the subject or circumstances, and still make the experts obsessed is what a good director aims for. The ability to set a scene and pace where the viewer generally feels they’re a part of the setting is equally important, especially during talking heads.

Then there’s archive, somewhat of an obsession point for us. Not sure if people realise how much digging for archive footage mirrors record digging. Turning up even a few minutes of undiscovered footage can be the catalyst and core of an amazing feature length project.

And that’s where The Radiant Child really kicks off. Davis had interviewed Basquiat in 1985, two years before his death, arguably sitting at his peak as a prince of Noho, constantly seeking his own place in the world, becoming more distrustful of the scene while exploring his own heritage in his art.

This interview narrates the whole documentary, chopped in to pieces and dropped in as the story progresses. The timing of when it was taken it important too, as close friend Andy Warhol was still alive, who’s death would leave Basquiat feeling isolated and withdrawn. He looks comfortable and open during the chats to camera; it’s clear he feels at ease answering questions for Davis, especially when this footage is placed next to other interviews of the time.

The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat is not just the story of a unique personality and gifted artist, but also a time in the city where he was able to be elevated as part of a one-time scene, a time that will never be repeated.

The Radiant Child is as much about the attitude of the burgeoning New York art scene in the eighties as Jean-Michel’s attitude towards it. He embraced his surroundings while reinventing the conventions of the arts that held it together. His presence through ‘Samo‘ tagging, experimental music, a refusal to work and selling postcards while homeless is such a huge part of what made him later.

As headlined in the film, with sudden success can come a sudden downfall. One of the most influential artists of the 20th century was soon to join the 27 club, leaving behind over a one thousand paintings and one thousand drawings.

The use of archive and interviewees is really beautiful. Not just all the shots of Basquiat working to bebop, stepping across paintings and struggling to come to terms with interviewers, but of the city itself during this time. It’s painted in such a way that you feel like you’re in New York, part of the downtown 500 wanting to get closer to the shining light that was Jean-Michel.

In addition to art personalties, dealers, gallery owners and ex-girlfriends that you’d expect to hear from, it’s nice to have Fab 5 Freddy and Thurston Moore weighing in on what was going on in their immediate circles. Definitely helps make it more relevant for us coming at it from a music era.

And on that note it’s very much worth mentioning the soundtrack and the editing. The tracks are incredible, and placed in a way where hard bebop is used to showcase Jean-Michel at work put against establishing shots with early electro and hip-hop. Really nice touch.

Probably going to watch this a few more times before putting it away again, it really is a wonderful production. The fact that I’m a big fan of his work may help a little, but I guarantee that everyone will find something to make this feature length stand out for them.

Trailer below with the press release, and you can check out more on the movie at the official site here: http://www.jean-michelbasquiattheradiantchild.com/