Opening as it does to the strains of The Pogues' fine Fairytale Of New York, you expect and hope that Julian Schnabels' directorial debut will be unconventional. And it is - but it's also a curious arthouse/mainstream cross-dresser, which mixes moments tailored to suit a mass audience with long stretches so engrossed in navel contemplation that "pretentious" seems too mild a word.
The first hurdle Basquiat has to overcome is the fact that artist biopics rarely thrill (anyone who actually survived Merchant-Ivory's Surviving Picasso will attest to that); the second is that Basquiat digs deeply intothe life of someone you've probably never even heard of. Still, it's an interesting-enough story, kicking off in the early '80s when the wannabe artist (portrayed convincingly by relative unknown Jeffrey Wright) first made his mark on the New York art circuit. At 19, the dreadlocked graffiti scribbler suddenly hit the big time, his work becoming hotly sought after by museums and collectors alike. He began to mix in bigger, more expensive circles, and soon had flaxen-haired Andy "Creepy" Warhol as his closest confidant. (Tough luck, Bas.)
But - and you can see what's coming - like many bright stars, Basquiat was just the type to burn out too quickly. By the tender age of 27 he was pushing up the daisies, the victim of a massive heroin overdose. This, of course, makes his tragic life - genius cut short in its prime, blah de blah - almost perfect for cinematic glorification. The problem is that, while it has many memorable moments, for the most part Basquiat fails to strike home.
Why? Well, director Schnabel is an artist first and a movie-maker second. Visually he's a great stylist - this is a film with a tremendous look - but in terms of dramatic content and pacing, his baby crawls all over the place. What claws the film back from a critical pounding are some great performances - Bowie's Warhol is a hoot, and Wincott's portrayal of Basquiat's limp-wristed artist buddy is spot-on. Look out for scene-stealing cameos from Dennis Hopper and Willem Dafoe (who plays an electrician) too. All in all, if you can put up with the dull bits, and like your cinema to offer style and education as much as entertainment, this little oddity may well be for you.