Basquiat is a 1996 biopic/drama film directed by fellow painter Julian Schnabel which is based on the life of American postmodernist/neo expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat, born in Brooklyn, used his graffiti roots as a foundation to create collage-style paintings on canvas.
Jeffrey Wright portrays Basquiat, and David Bowie plays Basquiat's friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Additional cast include Gary Oldman as a thinly disguised Schnabel, Michael Wincott as the poet and art critic Rene Ricard; Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger; Parker Posey as gallery owner Mary Boone; Claire Forlani, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal and Benicio del Toro in supporting roles as "composite characters".
The film was written by Michael Holman and Schnabel while Lech J. Majewski and John F. Bowe each receives a story credit and Michael Thomas Holman receives a story development credit.
As director, Schnabel is often found painting himself into the film by adding the fictional stand-in character, Albert Milo (Gary Oldman), based on Schnabel. Schnabel also leaves a bit more of himself in the film by adding cameo appearances by his own mother, father, and daughter (as Milo's family.) Schnabel himself is an extra as a waiter.
Basquiat was the first commercial feature film about a painter made by a painter. The director said:
"I know what it's like to be attacked as an artist. I know what it's like to be judged as an artist. I know what it's like to arrive as an artist and have fame and notoriety. I know what it's like to be accused of things that you never said or did. I know what it's like to be described as a piece of hype. I know what it's like to be appreciated as well as degraded."
Basquiat died in 1988, of mixed-drug toxicity (he had been combining cocaine and heroin, known as "speedballing"). Basquiat's estate would not grant permission for his work to be used in the film. Schnabel and his studio assistant Greg Bogan created paintings "in the style of" Basquiat for the film.
The critical response to this film was mixed, and not as positive as towards Schnabel's later films, particularly The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the film "bold, attention-getting and more than a little facile, a stylish-looking film without the connective tissue to give it real depth.
"Directorial Debut Fails as Film, History"; review of Basquiat, by Julian Schnabel, San Francisco Examiner, August 16, 1996.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Examiner said that "Basquiat does not seem interested in anything that doesn't advance its director's personal agenda." The review stated that "Though as a writer-director, Schnabel's work is not the total fiasco the debut films of fellow artists David Salle ("Search and Destroy") and Robert Longo ("Johnny Mnemonic") were, it is fascinating to see what a compendium of Troubled Genius movie cliches he has turned out." Like several of the negative reviews, the review picked out for praise the acting of Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat, saying "Basquiat's only genuine inspiration was casting Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony for his work in Angels in America on the New York stage, as the artist. An actor whose talent is visible even in this standard role, Wright's ability creates more interest in Basquiat's fate than would otherwise exist."
The reviews in the art press focused more on the relation of Schnabel as director to his portrayal of Schnabel as artist in the film, and on changes to the facts of Basquiat's life introduced by Schnabel to make a more accessible film. In Art In America, the art critic Brooks Adams wrote:
Basquiat can be seen as a huge, lurking self-portrait of the artist-Schnabel, not Basquiat. So laden is the film with the innumerable coincidences of Basquiat and Schnabel's enthusiasms (among others, for pajamas and surfing) that the movie should be more appropriately called My Basquiat… To a remarkable degree, the movie succeeds, by dint of its authorial slant, in popularizing the myth of Basquiat as a young, gorgeous, doomed, yet ultimately transcendent black male artist, even as it extends and reinflates the myth of Schnabel as a protean, Picassoid white male painter… Yet for all one's apprehension about the very idea of Schnabel making such a film, Basquiat turns out to be a surprisingly good movie…It is also an art work.
After the film was released, the actor Jeffrey Wright said that "I think my performance was appropriated, literally, and the way I was edited was appropriated in the same way his [Basquiat's] story has been appropriated and that he was appropriated when he was alive. [...] Julian made him out to be too docile and too much of a victim and too passive and not as dangerous as he really was. It's about containing Basquiat. It's about aggrandizing himself through Basquiat's memory.