What could have been a disaster—and what is a much vilified film in some circles—Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) becomes a work of some fascination—precisely for the same reasons that could have been its downfall, and the reasons that fuel its detractors. Artist Julian Schnabel—a man whose filmography suggests he hasn’t an unpretentious bone in his body—hadn’t previously made a film when he decided to tackle this movie on painter (among other things) Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright)—an artist he actually knew.
Schnabel’s claim was that he—as a painter himself—understood what it was like to be an artist, what an artist goes through in the suffering and the degradation and the attacks by the jealous or the merely unsympathetic. That may be true, but it’s unclear why a filmmaker wouldn’t also understand these things. (By that I mean a filmmaker and not a hired-hand director.) But it raises two more significant questions. Schnabel’s notion that he would understand what Basquiat felt because he’d experienced all these things himself is predicated on the dubious assumption (even presumption) that his own responses to and feelings about these things would be identical to those of someone else. This in turn raises the question of whether the results really are a film about Basquiat or a film about Schnabel—or at any rate about Basquiat as Schnabel. It’s an issue that still plagues the film—even from star Jeffrey Wright.
The question about all this, though, is whether or not it actually matters, since any filmmaker would have ended making his own version of the subject, filtering things through his own sensibilities in ways that make sense to him as he attempts to make sense out of Basquiat. Anyone who goes to a biographical film expecting anything else is starting off on a false premise. The truth is that it’s just more pronounced in this case because of the personal connection between filmmaker and subject—and Schnabel’s claims about being able to understand Basquiat only exacerbates this. In the end, however, the real fact is that Schnabel made his film about Basquiat, which carries its own validation. He’s also made something of a work of art in its own right.
It’s an imperfect work of art, yes, but art it is. Schnabel’s tendency to fall back on some pretty standard biopic conventions is probably due to his novice filmmaker status. That’s likely part of the reason—along with the fact that he could—resorted to a kind of guest-star-stunt casting with the supporting cast. That, however, occasionally pays off. In the case of David Bowie’s portrayal of Andy Warhol, it more than pays off. Was Bowie cast just on looks? Or on the strength of having written a song about Warhol—a song that includes the line, “dress my friends up just for show and see them as they really are?” In a sense, isn’t that what Schnabel is doing with this film? Regardless, Bowie’s Warhol is the most human and believable depiction of the man to date. And it’s the perfect complement to Jeffrey Wright’s drug-addicted artist. Even if Wright doesn’t like what Schnabel did to his performance in editing, it doesn’t change the fact that his Basquiat is a fascinating creation—just like the film that houses it.