The most powerful moments of this documentary about the early years of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat come just before the closing credits. We see, unadorned and in simple succession, half a dozen or so of his pictures, and finally get a sense of why we are here and what the fuss is about. Otherwise film-maker Sara Driver is apparently concerned to embed Basquiat deeply, and at first almost invisibly, into his social milieu: the exciting and almost lawless creativity of New York in the late 1970s, with punk, Warhol, subway graffiti, and so on.
Driver interviews any number of people of that era, including street graffiti artist Al Diaz and film-maker Jim Jarmusch, about what it was like in those days and what Basquiat himself was like. He emerges as an enigma, a rumour, almost a hallucination, always flitting in and out of the story, easily and apparently effortlessly bringing off a series of brilliant street-art coups. But who exactly was Basquiat? Where had he come from?
Exasperatingly, Driver never sets out to give us the simple facts about his family and his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, and stops short of describing his death from drug abuse – just content to let him emerge as some cloudy force of nature. It is, maybe, a rather naive and even condescending view of this complex and sophisticated man. (My colleague Jonathan Jones makes a similar observation about the recent Basquiat retrospective at London’s Barbican. Perhaps, like Tamra Davis, director of the 2010 film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Driver left out this kind of biographical detail in return for cooperation from the artist’s family. Either way, the film doesn’t quite get under Basquiat’s skin, but does a thorough job of reconstructing that forgotten city of late-70s New York in which Basquiat came of age.