Also known as: Build A Fort, Set It On Fire (alternative title)
Release Date: August 9th, 1996
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by: Julian Schnabel, John Bowe, Michael Holman, Lech Majewski
Music by: John Cale, Julian Schnabel
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Benicio del Toro, Claire Forlani, Michael Wincott, Parker Posey, Courtney Love, Elina Lowensohn, Paul Bartel, Tatum O’Neal, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Sam Rockwell, Michael Badalucco, Joseph R. Gannascoli, Vincent Laresca, Vincent Gallo (uncredited)
Eleventh Street Production, Jon Kilik, Miramax, 107 Minutes
“What is it about art anyway that we give it so much importance? Artists are respected by the poor because what they do is an honest way to get out of the slum using one’s sheer self as the medium. The money earned, proof, pure and simple, of the value of that individual, the artist. The picture a mother’s son does in jail hangs on her wall as proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched. And this is a much different idea than fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. But you can never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave, that you have used God’s gift to be free.” – Rene Ricard
Everyone has a favorite movie or few. This is one of mine and honestly, I’ve put off reviewing it because I’ve found it difficult to put into words what I love about it so much. It’s just more of a feeling and a vibe that it gives off, and as an artist myself, I felt deeply connected with the film the first time that I saw it.
While the picture is a biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist that rose to prominence and died way too young, it is also an examination of art itself and the artist’s place in the world. It’s a real critique on the art world, especially in the opulent ’80s and the New York City scene. What makes this even more interesting, though, is that this was made by people who knew Basquiat and who were part of this community at the time that he rose up and took the art world by storm.
Honestly, this is probably the most intimate look inside that world and of that specific era that outsiders have ever gotten. It’s an incredibly intriguing place. It’s also made that much more personal by the love of the filmmakers and the passion they put into this motion picture.
This passion goes beyond director Julian Schnabel and the writers, though, as it also comes out through the performances of the actors. And man, this is a movie with an incredible cast from top-to-bottom. For an indie picture about an artist that was here and gone so quickly, the production attracted so many worthwhile actors.
The two that standout the most, however, are Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. These two men gave real life to these iconic figures and their chemistry together was so good that you truly believed in the real life bond between Basquiat and Warhol, a bond everyone else seemed jealous about.
I also loved the scene with Christopher Walken, as a journalist asking Jean-Michel some pretty pointed questions. But this scene kind of shows you where Basquiat is in life, at this point, as everything has moved so fast. Plus, the film shows sections of his life and there isn’t any sort of traditional progression of time, which I liked. Things happen in a dreamlike blur but that’s often times how life goes and you have these random moments that sort of ground you and put things into perspective.
There isn’t a weak performance in the whole film and it features incredible moments between Wright, a newcomer at the time, and well-established actors like Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, Michael Wincott, Benicio del Toro and so many others.
Additionally, the music in the film is just as important as the art and it truly sets the tone in every scene and it’s actually my favorite soundtrack that’s ever been assembled.
By the time you get to the end, the film tries to give you some hope and through a story Jean-Michel tells to his friend, Benny, you fully understand what his place in the world was and still is. Sadly, the writing was on the wall for how Basquiat’s story would end but even with his life cut incredibly short, he created something that would live on forever.
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