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The Doc Days of Summer: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”

The Doc Days of Summer: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (photo)

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Tamra Davis has seen the highs and lows of fame more than most. One of the most successful contemporary female filmmakers around (not to mention the wife of a Beastie Boy), she directed Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Dave Chappelle and Britney Spears in their first leading roles. She offered Drew Barrymore her couch to crash on and Barrymore’s first adult part in 1992’s “Gun Crazy,” a few years after the former child star was told by her agent her career was over at the age of nine, and hung around Kurt Cobain before his untimely passing.

“I’ve been in that position where I’ve seen people who have incredible talent but also who are very sensitive and have a very difficult time dealing with fame,” said Davis. “And I’m always amazed at the people that I know that keep going.”

Consider her latest film, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” as a way of keeping alive the memory of her friend, the wildly talented painter who died much too young at the tender age of 27, but not before she and their mutual friend Becky Johnson filmed an interview with him and other additional footage of him painting in 1984. Davis was a film school student working at the Ulrike Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles when she first met Basquiat at a gallery opening and was captivated from the moment he stepped in the room.

The beauty of Davis’ portrait of Basquiat is that it’s much like the man she met that night who insisted on setting up a dance area in the back of the gallery — it’s brash, engaging, impetuous, audacious and ultimately a bit transcendent.

“When you hung out with Jean-Michel, that’s what your world was like,” said Davis. “It was just so fast and so vibrant and he was always listening to all these different kinds of music and everything moved super-fast. I felt like that his world had that collage aspect to it and even now, when I stand in front of his paintings, they’re so loud. There’s so much information just pouring out of them, so I really wanted the film to have that kind of boom for real explosion of ideas.”

07212010_TamraDavisJeanMichelBasquiat.jpgWhile “The Radiant Child” touches on many of the combustible elements in Basquiat’s life — the drug use, the flings with ’80s scenesters like Madonna, the sometimes racist art snobs that claimed his contribution to the form was “practically nil” — it is primarily a celebration of his unusual and groundbreaking neoexpressionist work that marries personal accounts from friends, including Fab 5 Freddy, ex-girlfriends like Suzanne Mallouk and gallery owners such as Larry Gagosian with one of the most extensive retrospectives of his paintings and sketches imaginable.

Amazingly, it almost never left a drawer in Davis’ house. After Basquiat’s death in 1988, Davis shelved the film she had, only dusting it off in 2005 when a friend from the Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art mentioned they would soon be hosting an exhibit of his work. She edited the footage into a short that accompanied the exhibit, but between an offer from Arthouse Films’ David Koh to produce a feature version and Davis’ own desire to get away from the grind of directing narrative features on location away from her family, she decided to get serious about a full-length Basquiat doc.

“Having kids kind of gave me that opportunity to slow down a little bit and dig into projects that needed that kind of devotion and time,” Davis said. “I did like this little cooking show and I also think that gave me the confidence that you don’t really need a lot to make a movie, you just need a camera and a vision, so I was like okay, I think I can do this.”

Once she reached out to Basquiat’s father Gerard, who gave his blessing, Davis went about digging up old photographs and talking up the survivors of the decadent art world of the ’80s like Julian Schnabel. E-mails from photographers would lead to discoveries about Basquiat’s early period as the graffiti artist SAMO© and archival snapshots and recollections of Basquiat would reveal the artist to be a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum at six and recount his traumatic car crash at seven.

07212010_JeanMichelBasquiatRadiantChild3.jpg“Each person I’d talk to was like a new map,” said Davis. “Their memory of Jean-Michel was always so vivid still in their heads that they could even describe like details down to like the color of a car or the street corner they were on. He was such a character that their memories were still so strong.”

Although Davis was reluctant to include herself in the film, it’s her occasional interjections about rescuing her friend from the ever-ringing doorbell when he lived on Crosby Street in New York or sitting atop Mulholland Drive and eating Chinese food in her car that bring a humanity to the picture amidst the experts who rightly praise Basquiat as a visionary and extol his skills as a quick draw artist given to easy inspiration (Warhol envied his speed).

Davis hopes the doc will inspire other young artists to keep pursuing their talent, even if like Basquiat they are rejected at first, and she herself has been reliving her younger days as an independent filmmaker on the festival circuit, excited to travel to Deauville after stops at Sundance and SXSW. The post-screening parties have even brought out a few old friends.

“Chris Rock came [to one of the screenings] and afterwards, we just sat around having the best time saying like, “Chris, we’re still working. Can you believe it?”

Thankfully, Davis is preserving the work of others as well.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is now playing in New York before opening in Denver and Seattle on August 6th and Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston on August 20th.

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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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