Basquiat documentary depicts the artist as a young man With its repetitive vocal line and frenetic bounciness, the 1940s bebop tune “Salt Peanuts” was the perfect song for the opening credits of The Radiant Child, a documentary about artist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. A New York City counter-culture icon of the early 1980s, Basquiat sent shockwaves through the era’s sterile minimalist movement with his ostentatious expressionist paintings (which often featured word repetition and a staccato, improvisational style, like “Salt Peanuts”). The Radiant Child is an adequate documentary that is elevated greatly by Basquiat’s natural charm — which is mostly delivered in a never-before-seen interview — as well as an insightful look at his artistic influences. A single, previously unseen on-camera interview conducted more than 20 years ago by the film’s director, Tamra Davis (who, strangely enough, also directed the hip-hop mockumentary CB4 and cult classic Billy Madison) provides a strong narrative backbone for her documentary. Davis shapes the movie chronologically, beginning with Basquiat’s legendary teenage years as a “homeless” (he was actually more of a couch surfer) bohemian looking for his creative outlet. She quickly touches on Basquiat’s teenage years, which included some time as the celebrated street artist SAMO as well as a stint in a no-wave band with director and artist Vincent Gallo, before getting to the good stuff — Basquiat’s early career as a painter. Davis gathers testimonials from a range of Basquiat’s acquaintances, including journalists, art dealers, scenesters, gallery owners and ex-girlfriends. All of these talking heads give the viewer a good sense of Basquiat the artist. Unfortunately, Davis falls short in providing a sense of Basquiat the man, other than the usual “artist burning the candle at both ends” cliches, which usually involve the archetype of poverty followed by unbelievable overnight success, followed by drugs and death. This may not be entirely Davis’s fault. Basquiat’s money and fame alienated him from many of his oldest friends. He’s also depicted as a prolific visual artist who seemingly never stopped working — perhaps the artist was the man. Basquiat’s heroin use warrants little more than a couple of “he’d gotten into drugs” recollections, glossing over the real tragedy of his early death. An odd friendship with Andy Warhol (one of Basquiat’s seemingly few close friends) provides a little more insight into Basquiat’s personal life and also helps to explain his depression after Warhol’s death. Even with its shortcomings, there’s an elusive power to the film. It wins in its examination of Basquiat’s art, and the film is at its best when showing side-by-side comparisons of Basquiat’s paintings with the paintings that inspired his work, revealing the reflexive quality of Basquiat’s art and his role as a bebop-inspired filter for modern art. The Radiant Child may succeed only for the same reasons its subject found success (a winning smile and an interesting personality), but it is an interesting tribute, even if it is a sunny assessment of a somewhat gloomy life. GRADE: B-

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Leave a comment