Despite having a career that lasted less than a decade, Jean-Michel Basquiat has scored both a biopic and now a feature documentary—the two achievements that qualify any artist for legend status. That both are better than average is another testament to his singular talents.
Basquiat (1996), made by fellow ’80s Manhattan art-scene scamp Julian Schnabel, employed as many of the genre’s annoying tropes as it discarded. It’s one of the few biopics missing a giddy on-the-rise montage, for one; its M.O. is to never show its subject enjoying his success/riches.
Likewise, Radiant Child is your traditional talking heads-and-exposition affair, only with more-than-required depth and dirt. Director Tamra Davis—of Sonic Youth videos and, whoops, Crossroads —was a friend of Basquiat, and her closeness nets her more information than required, plus a relaxed, candid chit-chat with the painter shot shortly before his 1988 death that she presumably dug out of a closet.
Like Basquiat, Radiant Child is less a rise-and-fall narrative than a window into an easily romanticized era. Our hero was one of the breakout stars of the “Downtown 500,” the hand-to-mouth artists who flocked to New York—and the Village, no less—because it was dirt-cheap (and dirty). Friends, some of them jilted on his road from grafitti artist scouring nightclub floors for cash to international star by 21, speak to his omnipresence in the scene: hitting up CBGB’s, frequenting Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, forming the band Gray with a young Vincent Gallo. Once he was gone to the likes of Andy Warhol, he became an insecure outsider: popular, but snubbed by the cognoscenti and, because of his race, condescended to by detractors and admirers alike.
This is still the kind of doc that plays “The Message” as it introduces Ed Koch’s grafitti-adorned New York, but it’s also the kind that reserves a chunk of its length to analysis. We not only discover Basquiat was to see Run-DMC the night he died, but also get specifics on how his paintings slyly worked in references to his life, to work by artists he admired and to Batman and Robin. Even at only 88 minutes, it’s a close-to-full portrait.