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“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” The Story of a Bright Light and its Dark End

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” The Story of a Bright Light and its Dark End (photo)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat gave the world thousands of pieces of art but very few interviews. His friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis (director of the cult films “CB4” and “Half Baked), recorded one of the rare ones in a room at the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills in June 1986. Basquiat died two years later of a heroin overdose and Davis, worried she might be taking advantage of her friend’s legacy for personal gain, left the footage in a drawer for over 20 years. She was finally convinced to share it with the world, first in a 20-minute short film and now as part of the new feature documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”

Davis’ candid interview with Basquiat is only a small (albeit crucial) element of her 93-minute film. The rest is a mixture of archival footage of late ’70s, early ’80s New York and reflections from Basquiat’s friends, collaborators, contemporaries, clients, and lovers. Collectively, they paint a portrait of the artist as a young, brilliant, and fragile young man with an almost uncontrollable need to create, an uncanny ability to filter history and culture through his unique perspective, and a precipitous fall from grace. “The Radiant Child” also features glimpses of many pieces from Basquiat’s prodigious catalog, but they’re just that: glimpses that rarely last longer than a second or two. The film is more interested in appreciating Basquiat’s legacy than any of his individual pieces.

The Basquiat conjured by his associates in “The Radiant Child” excelled at everything (well, almost everything; he never was great at talking about his work on camera). He was a suave dancer, a good friend, an ingenious self-promoter and, of course, a natural artist with a tireless work ethic and a rich sense of his medium’s history. Davis effectively places us right in the middle of the era’s hipster parties, couch surfing, and basement studios, but I wish she’d asked the question “Why?” a bit more.

Why did Basquiat have the sudden and epochal impact that he did? If he became such an enormous overnight success, then why did the biggest galleries and dealers suddenly refuse to work with him? The film’s tendency to favor rosy recollections from Basquiat insiders over probing analysis from art critics might make it play better for aficionados (who can fill in the details) than neophytes (who, like me, were left asking a couple questions).

07212010_radiant2.jpgSince I’m more familiar with the modern independent film world than the Lower Manhattan art scene of the 1980s, I found myself repeatedly drawing comparisons between Basquiat and “The Radiant Child” and another documentary about the art world from earlier this year, Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Basquiat first rose to prominence as a graffiti artist with the handle SAMO (for “Same Ol’ Shit”) but like Banksy, Basquiat’s street art was a lot more than simple vandalism: it ran the gamut from pop aburdism to political statement to dry observational humor.

The art world of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — money-hungry, star-fucking — hasn’t changed much since Basquiat’s days, though in making his own film to satirize it, at least Banksy’s gotten a modicum of revenge against the people who’ve exploited his work. Basquiat, on the other hand, was exploited and then discarded then exploited again once his death made his work that much more of a commodity.

Davis doesn’t necessarily hold the art world responsible for Basquiat’s premature death, but she also doesn’t paint it in a particularly flattering light either. Her view seems to line up with Bansky’s. At best, it’s a necessary evil. At worst, it’s a toxic mix of wannabes and parasites who attach themselves like leeches to genuine talents.

But despite the tragic ending, what lingers about “The Radiant Child” after it’s over is the amazing legacy that its subject left behind. Though it could have used a bit more critical context, the film offers exactly what it promises: a warm and intimate look at a talent who burned brightly, and all too quickly.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is now playing in New York.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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