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Basquiat Review

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The meteoric rise and fall of 1980s graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

★★★★★

A New York ghetto in 1981, enter a young black kid with a talent for graffiti. The art world gets wind and makes him a star. The rich and famous go wild for him. Andy Warhol becomes his buddy and he dates Madonna. By 1988, he's world famous but it's too late, because the lonely kid tragically dies of a drug overdose. On this evidence, the short life of pop artist Jean-Michel Basquiat should make for gripping viewing.

Sadly, given the biopic treatment by writer-director Schnabel, an artist friend of Basquiat, the media circus that shaped his life is completely shunned in favour of uneasy pretension, and the refusal to treat its title character as anything other than a misunderstood genius. Wright makes for a wonderful Basquiat, with his Bambi eyelashes and dazed smile, and there are some spicy cameos from Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper.

But as Schnabel has explicitly gone for the real Basquiat slant, it's puzzling that Wright is given all of 30 lines throughout the entire film, the origins of Basquiat's blazing talent are snubbed, his sexual orientation and Herculean drug intake are totally bypassed, and his web-like graffiti art is used only as background furniture.

True, there is some fine photography and some imaginative images, but Schnabel's elitist snobbery turns almost every scene into overblown tragedy (highlighted by one audacious vision of Basquiat crowned with gold in front of Picasso's Guernica).

Oddly enough, the film scores with Bowie's spellbinding take on the ageing Warhol. Without this comedic but beautiful performance and an offbeat soundtrack, this is little more than wet paint.

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