The singer, not the song

Basquiat paints a stark portrait of the artist as a young misfit

Instead, Basquiat derives its energy from a performance of indelible poignancy by Jeffrey Wright. Wright's physical interpretation invests Jean with an otherworldly aura; he always seems to be looking out to some point a great distance away. He holds his body awkwardly, as if Jean is standing in another plane of consciousness. His puppy-dog eyes and intense passion make him seem dangerous and soft at once, sensitive and completely oblivious to the world.

Schnabel elicits some fine performances from his large, talented cast. Schnabel has never written or directed a movie before, and Basquiat shows some of the evidence of a newcomer. Through a series of scenes, as Jean abandons some of his earliest supporters--expertly played by Benicio Del Toro, Michael Wincott, and Elina Lowensohn--Schnabel feels compelled to include an obligatory "pitching a fit in a restaurant" scene and the "beware who you step on while ascending the ladder of success" speech; Jean's obviously complex relationship with Gina also gets a somewhat cursory treatment near the end. But ultimately these visual cliches and other minor transgressions are forgivable (unlike art, lives don't get to be retouched so that everything fits together neatly), and nothing seriously threatens the woozy brilliance of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a movie of exhaustive intelligence, with a stimulating, well-heeled sense for how to portray the ethos of an artist in the throes of the creative process, even as he himself is being created by it. Last year's marvelous documentary Crumb furrowed similar ground, and Basquiat is its worthy successor. It nearly bursts apart from the force of the abiding sadness, but it never succumbs to tear-jerking. There's a brief moment in the film when Jean is biking through the park, staring up at the beauty of the world through his own wondrous eyes, and you know that Jean is full of the myriad possibilities in life, even as the movie is full of those same possibilities in him. The movie, like the man, is too full of hope and potential and wisdom and truth to let anything ruin that.

Basquiat. Miramax. Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Claire Forlani, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Wincott, Elina Lowensohn. Written and directed by Julian Schnabel. Now showing.

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