COMEDY DIRECTOR TAMRA DAVIS (Billy Madison, Half Baked, that one coming-of-age movie starring Britney Spears) was a friend of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat when she filmed an interview with him two years before his fatal heroin overdose at age 27. Until recently the footage—which also shows him goofing off in the studio, dancing and playing with small dogs—had been shelved, until Davis realized after unearthing it for a museum retrospective that she had the impetus for a definitive documentary of the artist's life and work. Though clearly meant in tribute, and perhaps (not unnecessarily) glossing over some of the more sordid aspects of his last years, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child achieves a convincing argument for Basquiat's artistic contributions, educating the viewer on his background, preoccupations, process, and flaws.
It's easy to be seduced in the film's first chapter, which sets the scene of an intoxicating late-'70s and early-'80s lower Manhattan, where Basquiat first became known as the graffiti artist SAMO. Interviews with art world fixtures who came of age during the era are all captivating enough for even the non-believer, and Davis expertly illustrates how Basquiat's arrival on the scene generated excitement. Willfully homeless, handsome, and African American, Basquiat was, above all, driven to be famous—a goal that he achieved, even if after leaving the parties and galleries, he could barely hail a cab. A significant part of the film is devoted to Basquiat's relationship with Andy Warhol, the godfather of New York's art scene, then in his declining, creepier years; the work the two produced is incredible, though its critical failure now reads as the tipping point for both artists' final descent. By the end of Radiant Child, you'll have seen a huge swath of Basquiat's work and be well versed in his major influences and techniques—and by its closing, all of the film's effusive talking heads will seem a lot less sycophantic.