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Film review: Basquiat

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17 1996 12:00 a.m. MDT

Like power, fame corrupts. And absolute or instantaneous stardom can corrupt even more quickly than power.

Fame, and an excessive lifestyle, killed confrontational New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who fatally overdosed on heroin in 1988. Julian Schabel's highly fictionalized account of Basquiat's short life, simply called "Basquiat," suggests that he was embraced too soon and rejected just as quickly by a New York art scene afraid to miss out on "the next Van Gogh."

As the film opens, the 19-year-old Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) is a graffiti artist who signs all his work "Samo," and who lives in a cardboard box in a nearby park. Needless to say, he's not too pleased with this meager existence and would like to get in to see Andy Warhol (David Bowie), the artist he admires.

But after writer Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) sees some of Basquiat's primitive paintings at a party and introduces him to some art dealers, it's a race for the art scene to claim discovery rights.

Art dealers now fight over him, and Warhol becomes his best friend, as well as a surrogate father. With all the attention and popularity, he suddenly has no need for his old friends or his waitress girlfriend, Gina (Claire Forlani), a once-aspiring artist.

However, after a couple of years, the art scene's attention moves on to other artists, including Albert Milo (Gary Oldman), and Basquiat is reduced to making bad collaborative paintings with Warhol. When Warhol dies, though, he eventually begins a downward spiral that ends with his death.

Schnabel, a fellow artist who befriended Basquiat later in his life, paints a very rosy picture of him, glossing over Basquiat's monstrous indulgences and self-destructive tendencies for the most part. He also egotistically depicts himself (Oldman's character is obviously meant to represent him) as a saint, rather than as Basquiat's competitor.

His direction also includes a few pretentious tendencies, such as the irritating "visions" Basquiat sees of surfers and waves, which are supposed to represent his dream of a perfect life.

Surprisingly, Schnabel's lack of honesty doesn't sink the film, though, largely because of his all-star cast, which includes cameos from Dennis Hopper, Paul Bartel, Courtney Love and Tatum O'Neal.

In addition to Wright's solid starring performance, Bowie nearly steals the whole thing as the nervously spacy pop artist Warhol. Forlani is also a revelation. Having been underutilized in the wretched "Mallrats," here she lights up the screen everytime she's on.

Other performances of note include Wincott, who plays Ricard as an effete poet, and Christopher Walken, who portrays an unnamed interviewer who attempts to confront Basquiat on the race issue.

"Basquiat" is rated R for profanity, drug use, some violence and two vulgar scenes involving bodily functions.