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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

"Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" screens Monday, Sept. 27 at the Oriental.

Milwaukee Film Festival: "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child"


Jean-Michel Basquiat lead an extraordinary life.

And because his life was so rare, dramatic and exceptionally beautiful, the documentary telling his story doesn't have to be.

Tamra Davis, director of "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" and close friend of the artist, interviewed Basquiat in 1985, at the height of his career in New York. Less than three years later, he died of a heroin overdose at age 27 and Davis shoved her intimate footage into a drawer and left it there for 20 years.

The film screened for the first time this year at Sundance Film Festival and is now screening Monday, Sept. 27 at Oriental Theatre at 11:30 p.m. and Thursday, Sept. 30 at North Shore Cinema at 3:30 p.m.

If you've seen Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic "Basquiat," a bright and vibrant drama staring David Bowie as Basquiat's close friend and sometimes mentor Andy Warhol, "Radiant Child" comes across as shockingly striped down by comparison. The visual and vocal quality is rough at times -- so much so as to require subtitles -- and the flow is choppy and unpolished.

Where this film shines isn't in its ability to paint a picture of the tragic young man as beautiful as his work, but to tell his story through those that knew and loved him. Basquiat himself is largely absent from commentary, save for Davis's interview at which he appears shy, soft spoken and child-like.

What he does relinquish, however, is fascinating. He ran away from home as a teenager hoping to escape abuse from his father who had just divorced his mother. He found himself on the streets of lower Manhattan in 1978 living hand-to-mouth -- "I'd walk around for days without sleeping eating nothing but cheese doodles," he says -- among hundreds of other like-minded aspiring artists of all kinds. It was an exciting time to be a part of the "downtown 500" as they were called. Some made it big -- Basquiat courted a young and unknown singer named Madonna during that time and started the band Gray with Vincent Gallo -- and others did not.

His broken relationship with his father and his new-found relationship with the famed yet unstable Andy Warhol set the scene for Basquiat's ultimate tragic spiral downward, despite his growing success. Warhol's untimely death sent him into a deep depression, which, compounded by his advancing drug addiction, was too deep a hole to escape.

The film leaves you questioning whether there was anything anyone could have done to prevent his loss -- or whether his death at a young age has since solidified him as the most important artist of his generation.


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