‘Jean-Michel had this whole other side’
Dec 13,2010 - 03:44 PM
It’s been just over two decades since the death of one of the most idiosyncratic, geniuses of contemporary US art, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. A former New York graffiti artist who rose to the highest echelons of the international art jet-set with wild, anarchic canvases, the intense pressure of celebrity and expectation took their toll and Basquiat succumbed to drug addiction, dying confused and disillusioned, at just 27. His good friend, director Tamra Davis hung out with Basquiat during his rise to fame and in her new documentary, lovingly portrays the much-misunderstood artist through her lens.
One of the most surprising things about watching this documentary was just how gentle and sensitive Jean-Michel actually was…
Oh, yes! If you didn’t know Jean-Michel, if you have just seen his work, you’d think, this is a very angry man! A lot of his self-portraits were like, GRRR! For sure, he had a side, but he also had this whole other side, this incredibly intelligent, charming and sensitive and that’s the guy I knew and saw. I wanted to share that person with people.
The centerpiece of the documentary is a long interview you shot with him in 1986. How did this come about?
I had started shooting him in 1983 or 1984. I was at film school and he had said, ‘Oh, you should make a movie about me!’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure!’ But it gave us a great excuse to start hanging out together. I’m was around 22, he was 24, and it was all that… you know, ‘We’re gonna be big!’ Now, I watch that footage and I see the idealism that we both had. I responded so well to that connection, you can see when he looks at the camera, what our relationship was. You can see all the flirting, the teasing. So that’s how the idea for the thing came about, just playing. ‘Yeah, Jean-Michel, I’ll make a movie of you!’
By 1986, he was really at the height of his career…
Yeah, he was totally at the top but he was having these struggles, knowing that people were talking about his personality or whatever. I realised that in the footage, he was defending himself as a painter and when I came to make this film, I saw that I needed to make a film for people who didn’t understand him. While he was alive and after he died, people were saying these awful things about him, you see in the film. They didn’t realise how these were things that really affected him on a deep level.
You saw him in LA shortly before he died. Did you feel he was in serious danger with his drug addictions?
I felt he was on a precipice and he knew it. It was like death was chasing him or he was going to completely reinvent himself. He would say he would go to Africa and have this ceremony done and reinvent himself. But he never did.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child screens tonight at 19:30 at MOE 11 and on December 14 at 16:15 at MOE 11.