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Tamra Davis Revisits the Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Tamra Davis Revisits the Life of Jean-Michel Basquiat

This interview was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film is set for release today, July 21st.

Director Tamra Davis draws upon the rare, intimate footage she had captured of the late artist, and her friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for her film. In his short career, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a phenomenon. He became notorious for his graffiti art under the moniker Samo in the late 1970s on the Lower East Side scene, sold his first painting to Deborah Harry for $200, and became best friends with Andy Warhol. Appreciated by both the art cognoscenti and the public, Basquiat was launched into international stardom. However, soon his cult status began to override the art that had made him famous in the first place.

Director Tamra Davis pays homage to her friend in this definitive documentary but also delves into Basquiat as an iconoclast. His dense, bebop-influenced neoexpressionist work emerged while minimalist, conceptual art was the fad; as a successful black artist, he was constantly confronted by racism and misconceptions. Much can be gleaned from insider interviews and archival footage, but it is Basquiat’s own words and work that powerfully convey the mystique and allure of both the artist and the man. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”
Director: Tamra Davis
Executive Producer: Maja Hoffmann
Producer: David Koh, Lilly Bright, Stanley Buchthal, Alexis Manya Spraic
Cinematographer: Tamra Davis, Harry Geller, David Koh
Editor: Alexis Manya Spraic
Music: J. Ralph, Mike D.
Graphics, Design, and Animation: Shepard Fairey and Studio No. 1/Obey
88 minutes

Tamra Davis on her background and developing “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”…

My name is Tamra Davis and I grew up in Studio City California. My grandparents lived in Hollywood and I was surrounded by the romanticism of movies ever since I was a child. I always thought I would be an actress because I thought that’s what girls do in the movies. I wasn’t until I was acting in Rome and on a Fellini set that I thought, this is what I want to do. Honestly I think I was a bit of a smart aleck and thought, “I could do this!” And way more efficiently. (I was only 18.) I came back to Hollywood and got to shadow Coppola while he made “One From The Heart” and he advised me to go to film school if I really want to become a director.

I had all these tapes in my closet that I had shot years ago with my friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was working on a film about him when he died and then I just put everything away. It was too sad. Almost 20 years later I was on a walk with a friend who works at MOCA and she was telling me about the retrospective they were having on Basquiat and I told her about my film. I showed it to the museum and they loved it and asked if i would show it during the exhibit. I then showed the short I had made at Sundance and met David Koh, a producer, who asked if I would make my short into a feature. Thus began my journey…

Director Tamra Davis. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

I had all this amazing intimate footage of Jean-Michel painting and an incredible and really rare interview that I shot with our mutual friend Becky Johnston asking the questions. As wonderful as I felt my short was I did understand that most people did not have the context of what and where Jean-Michel was coming from. So I really started with the idea of getting my audience into the world of NY 1980’s and what was going on in the art world, lower Manhattan, and to begin a dialog about fame and what it means to be different. I thought I was going to just have every one else talk and then finish my film with Jean-Michel talking. That didn’t work and I realized that I had to make a personal film and tell the real story.

On the challenges of developing such a personal project and how she hopes the film will play at Sundance…

I guess pushing myself to keep looking for that thing that turns a documentary into a movie. It was hard for me to keep myself so open emotionally and make the movie from my heart. That was my challenge in coming up with the film. Now that I am happy with the cut, the hugest challenge is getting all my archive approved.

I think the audience will really respond to the film. I think they will get excited about the art, the music, the times and get intoxicated by the charm of Jean-Michel. I also feel they will get involved in the story of his short life and have an understanding of the what happens to a young talented person that becomes famous in a very short amount of time.

Davis on her inspirations and aspirations….

A much as I felt that many documentaries were inspirational to me while I worked on this film I was really trying to make this a narrative film. I was also constantly being reminded of the media’s continued obsession with fame and personality and the tragedy that can come of this life.

I can’t believe that I am still so ambitious and have films spinning like plates and hope that one of them gets made or that I find a film I fall in love with. I hope to work till I’m an old lady.

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