International art star by 23, dead from a heroin overdose at 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat was drawn, in the words of one curator, to "the romance of the person whose life is so intense, it's more than he can bear." In her elegiac tribute, Tamra Davis, who became friends with the painter in 1983, mercifully avoids much of the gassy nostalgia that typifies documentaries made about New York artists of the late '70s and '80s; only one interviewee gushes that "everybody did everything then." Instead of the platitudes and fatuous art-world rhetoric that defined the 1996 biopic Basquiat by Julian Schnabel (a blustery talking head here), Davis focuses on fascinating specifics to illuminate the life and work of the man who took, said Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson, "all the street energies and translated them into high art." Centering her film on an interview she shot of Basquiat—then 25, beautiful, slightly bemused—in 1985, Davis uses that footage to provide emotional heft. Though marred by erratic production values (the audio is especially crummy), Davis' homage—tender, never hagiographic—also contains some biting analysis of the racism, both overt and insidious, that Basquiat was up against.
The artist in his youthful prime.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Aug. 6–Thurs., Aug. 12. Not rated. 90 minutes.