Long before she directed Billy Madison, Tamra Davis was a young, blond film kid in L.A. with excellent taste in company: Beginning in 1983, she and her friend designer Becky Johnson turned their camera on painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, already an art star and enjoying his most productive days at a remove from NYC's Soho. This footage, particularly an unguarded 1985 interview with the 25-year-old phenom, is at the core of Davis's deeply felt profile, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. The legend of the artist's meteoric rise and fall (to heroin) is so widely known---and already dramatized via Julian Schnabel's fine biopic, Basquiat (1996)---that Davis is smart to go as personal as she can.
Though her doc sometimes falls prey to conveying the obvious (New York, we learn, was once a place in which artists could live), her interviews, essential and well-chosen, instantly vault the film to the top level of intimacy. Davis sits with Suzanne Mallouk, Basquiat's longtime girlfriend, who reveals the complex feelings of being in love, being a financial supporter and being sexually thrown off for the likes of a skanky prefame Madonna. We hear from Basquiat's early champions Kenny Scharf and Diego Cortez---even kingmaker Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol's dealer and an orchestrator of that art god's late friendship with the up-and-comer. Conversations are pushed to the essential conflict at the heart of Basquiat's ego: talent versus race. (He could never outfox his own suspicion of being the liberal art world's puppy.) The man himself stares into Davis's lens, both confident and scared; for these moments alone, the movie is key.---Joshua Rothkopf
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