by filmmaker Tamra Davis
I’m in New York right now for the opening of my film, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. It’s summer and it’s super hot. There is something so special and incredibly nerve tingling about opening night.
The film is about New York, a few layers ago. You can’t help feel the past when you walk down the streets of this city. There’s something old right next to something new. It can be stimulating and over stimulating. I tried to make my film feel like this. New York in the ‘80s was an incredible time.
I met Jean-Michel Basquiat in Los Angeles in 1983. I was a 19-year-old LACC film student and worked as a gallery assistant for Ulrike Kantor Gallery. My best friend Matt Dike, who worked for Larry Gagosian, brought Jean-Michel over to visit me one day. Jean-Michel was in town for his first show with Larry.
Jean-Michel was 21 and gorgeous. He took me to the back room while we were having an opening and put on a cassette. He turned the back office into a little private dance party. We bonded over our love for movies. I always had a Super 8 camera with me and was constantly filming. He suggested I make a movie about him. Cool!
So I started coming to the studio he was painting in, in Venice Beach, as he prepared for his show at Larry’s. I filmed the opening. That was super fun and you can see how excited Jean-Michel is as he makes his way through the crowd of the new L.A. art scene. Jean-Michel conquered L.A. in one visit.
Each time he came into town we would hang out and I would film him painting or just having fun. Then in 1986 we decided it was a good time to do the interview. Our mutual friend Becky Johnston asked the smart questions, and I asked a few silly ones. We shot it in the L’Ermitage hotel and I used a “new” VHS video camera.
This footage is what became the foundation of my film. When I was in the edit room I found myself laboring over these images, resurrecting an old relationship that was so clearly visible in my footage so many years earlier: the teasing, the flirting, the excitement, the intelligent conversations, or just the quietness of watching your friend paint.
I saw Jean-Michel for the last time when he passed through L.A. on his way to New York from Hawaii. He was in really bad shape, and I felt I needed to watch over him 24 hours a day. He was desperately trying not to do drugs. He was certain his career was over. He had stopped painting and he wanted to talk about death. He didn’t look very good either. He had really changed in the last year or so that I hadn’t seen him. He died only a few weeks later. It’s just so sad. I took my film and put it away in a drawer.
As the years went by, I continued to be obsessed with film and started making music videos and movies. Jean-Michel’s art career was far from over but he was becoming even more famous. People were still talking about him, he was getting huge retrospectives all over the world, movies were made about him, and books were written. When the Basquiat Retrospective traveled from Brooklyn to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles in 2004, I mentioned to a friend at the museum that I still had this footage of Jean-Michel. In fact, the footage was still sitting in the same drawer for 20 years.
I decided that it was time for me to tell the story of my friend Jean-Michel, and I used that lost footage as the foundation for my film. It was the perfect project for me to work on as a new mom. There’s something so liberating about film technology today: all I needed was my little 3 chip Panasonic camera, a computer and my passion. I had a great producer that kept up on me and an incredible editor that pushed me to go deeper. She would get on me in the edit room, “What is this film about!? What are you trying to say!? Go deeper!” I think that’s why I made kind of an emotional film. I felt it. I felt Jean. I tried to make a movie for my friend. I tried to hear his voice through his paintings, through photographs, through the words he wrote, and through his friends who spoke about him. Above all, I really tried to make the movie for him.