David Bowie is Andy Warhol
David Bowie really makes an impression as Andy Warhol, in a movie about painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life. Bowie himself is not the main character, but he does have a few significant scenes as the aloof painter, tripping in and out of Basquiat’s life. The story of Basquiat is a depressing one in my opinion, and actor Jeffrey Wright looks half-dazed or confused most of the time, which isn’t surprising given Basquiat’s drug addiction. It’s a surprisingly casting, as Wright is known for his more upper crust, straight-laced roles, like Felix Leiter in the new Bond movies. I think his take on Basquiat is growing on me, but there are things that stick out.
I still can’t get over how much of the movie is just Basquiat wandering around in a drug-induced trance. People look at him strangely. They, in turn, also walk around in a daze. Basquiat scribbles something and sells it for insane amounts of cash. That’s pretty much this movie. Although the drama isn’t secondary, I can tell that plot is.
So the dazed Basquiat starts off as this homeless guy, hoping to get a shot at the big time as a painter like Andy Warhol. He sneaks into a restaurant where Warhol is having lunch and sells him some “ignorant art”, which are these colorful postcard-sized pictures made with expressionist scribbles. Bowie puts on a good performance in this scene, which introduces Warhol as comedic and eccentric. He later has an aloof discussion with Basquiat, and Bowie plays it with more understated comedy, which I think works.
Unfortunately, there is a LOT of symbolism and imagery in addition to the wandering around, so you get Basquiat wandering down the street on drugs, then a shot of a surfer, then Basquiat looking to the sky. What does it mean? Who knows. It’s amazing though and hilarious. Basquiat has this obsession with Hawaii throughout the movie and talks about escaping from his new-found fame as the most important expressionist painter of the 20th century, so I guess the images could be representative of that. Maybe.
In some ways, the movie feeds the myth of aloof painters and artists, but parts of it still work great as a drama, like when Basquiat watches a video of Warhol and gets emotional about the death of this friend. But there are other scenes which don’t work very well, and the surfing and the wandering just keeps repeating ad nauseum. Courtney Love and Claire Forlani both have characters in the movie, but they disappear. Still, Jeffrey Wright does alright and David Bowie is excellent, which makes up for the flaws. It’s better than watching Labyrinth again, I can tell you that much.