Shades of Genius

Director Tamra Davis Remembers Basquiat

Filmmaker Tamra Davis has worked on a wide range of projects, from music promos for Depeche Mode, Faith No More and Sonic Youth, to features such as Billy Madison and Keep Your Eyes Open, as well as television work including stints on Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy. Davis was studying at film school in Los Angeles when she met and befriended the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Offering a deeply personal view on the artist’s legendary charisma, she discusses her much-anticipated documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which will be released in the US on July 21.

When did you first meet Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Jean-Michel came into town for his first show at the Gagosian gallery [in Beverly Hills]—1983 I think. I was a gallery assistant at Ulrike Kantor and also at film school. A friend was the gallery assistant for Larry Gagosian, this guy Matt Dike. He was also doing clubs in LA, so we all just became really good friends. Jean-Michel and I bonded over filmmaking. We’d hang out and go to movies, talk about film. Pretty soon after that, I started filming him and he asked me if I would make a film about him.

Did he strike you immediately?

He was just 21 or 22. And he was… well, I don’t want to say a rock star, but he would walk into a room and everybody would look at him. The way he walked—he had so much confidence and he looked definitely different. He wore his hair in this crazy way, he had amazing style, and he was super cute and really charming.

He comes across as shy whenever he’s being interviewed in the film. Was he very different off-camera?

I think that’s what is nice about the footage, when he’s talking to Becky [Johnston, the interviewer] and me. It’s a little bit more like how he was in person, incredibly intelligent… and flirty.

Were you the only person he asked to film him?
Yes. I started filming him in the studio painting and things like that. When he would come to LA, we would hang out with friends, and I would always have cameras with me so I would keep filming him over the years, until about 1985. I was with him just a couple of weeks before he died in 1988.

How did the news affect you?

I just felt bad about everything that happened. It felt really uncomfortable trying to do anything with the footage. I put it away and forgot about it.

The film gives a great sense of how much work he was actually producing in such a short space of time.

Every time I was with him—and anybody will tell you this—he was always working. He would be drawing at the restaurant; he would be painting. That’s always what makes me upset with people thinking, 'Oh, he was just a drug addict.' He had this incredible work ethic. I really wanted to make sure that people saw he wasn’t just partying all the time. That was what also made me sad at the very end, when I was with him for the weeks before he died. He had stopped painting, and that made me realize there was something seriously wrong.

Did you have a hard time getting in touch with all the people you interviewed for the film?

I knew a lot of them, just from being around in the art world and the film world, and his old friends generally knew who I was, so that part wasn’t too difficult. That we all had a mutual friend in common really added a level of intimacy to the interviews, and so that was really helpful.

Everyone you filmed seems very candid—and the memories are so clear.

Absolutely. He had this thing… people would remember distinct details. Twenty-something years later I would have people tell me they remembered even what he was wearing. He would burn his memory into your mind. He just was that kind of a person— that’s what made him such a unique individual.


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