Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist in New York City in the late 70s as a teenager under the name SAMO. SAMO gained notoriety for the sayings that accompanied his designs such as
"Plush safe he think . . .SAMO"
"SAMO as an escape clause."
The graffiti even received a write-up in The Village Voice in 1978. In 1979, "the SAMO project" ended with the pronouncement on Soho Buildings:
"SAMO is dead."
Basquiat's paintings sell for millions of dollars apiece.
In 1996, painter Julian Schnabel stepped into the director's chair for the biopic Basquiat. Neither a glossed-over love letter nor a scathing expose, Schnabel's film has a feel of accuracy about it, even through moments of magical realism. There are blanks in Basquiat's story, and they are left as such in this film. It is perhaps not a masterpiece, but it is a very, very, very good first film.
The movie is itself a curiosity as there are many big names involved in this film in tangential or cameo roles (Walken, Dafoe, Hopper, Oldman, Posey), suggesting that either Schnabel was very good at calling in favors or many people wanted to be a part of this story. I'm inclined to think that it was the latter as Benicio Del Toro is reported to have played the role of Basquiat's friend, Benny Dalmau, for scale and even offered the producers that he would do it for free to get the role.
David Bowie plays Warhol and even wears the late artist's wigs. I don't really know much about what Warhol was like, but Bowie did, so I'd be willing to bet that Bowie's performance is spot-on, and, in my opinion, some of his best acting work.
Another great performance comes from Michael Wincott as Rene Richard. Wincott is best-known for playing gravelly-voiced bad guys in movies like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, the Disney Three Musketeers re-make, and the under-appreciated Eddie Murphy thriller Metro. Here, Wincott is given an opportunity to show that he's got a much broader range.
Of course, the greatest performance of all belongs to Jeffrey Wright in the title role. Wright demonstrates once again how he may be one of the most under-rated actors working in Hollywood today. Basquiat is a puzzle and Wright plays him with honesty. Not everything that the character does is endearing, but we still find him eminently likeable.
It might even be difficult to call this a biography per se, as so much of Basquiat's story is left untold. Perhaps what director/painter Schnabel created here is, appropriately, a portrait.
And I, for one, quite liked it.