Poor, black and 21 when he hit it large on the very white New York art scene in 1981, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988, had a tortured life and a high regard for his controversial work. Artist Julian Schnabel, no stranger to ego or controversy, is the debuting writer and director who thought he could tell Basquiat’s story better than a Hollywood hack.
He has. Jeffrey Wright is magnetic and moving as Jean-Michel. David Bowie finds the loneliness in Andy Warhol that linked him to Jean-Michel. Gary Oldman is a Schnabel-like artist. Others include Dennis Hopper as an art dealer, Courtney Love as a groupie and Christopher Walken, who is mesmeric as an interviewer. Even the fakery — a Jean-Michel romance with a composite lover (Claire Forlani) — is forged with flair.
Schnabel excels with Jean-Michel in his studio — music blaring, pals chatting — as he calmly paints a huge, empty canvas. It’s a Herculean task done with daunting ease. Most movies stress the agony of art (think of Kirk Douglas’ Van Gogh in Lust for Life). Schnabel’s exceptional film honors his friend by showing the act of creation as a natural high. Life tormented Basquiat, not art. In Basquiat, the gift just pours out.