‘Radiant Child’: Some Love for Tamra Davis’s Latest

Tamra Davis

Last week, I saw two of the best films I have seen all summer. One was Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film I beg you all to see before it gets shunted out of theaters in the next two or three weeks. The other film was Tamra Davis‘s new doc Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.

Radiant Child is one of those films that often flies under the radar during this crowded summer season that deserves more attention than it is currently getting. It debuted earlier this year at Sundance along with the much more hyped Banksy film Exit Through The Gift Shop, and the comparisons are obvious. Jean-Michel Basquiat is the blueprint for an artist like Banksy and a cautionary tale as well.

But the similarities stop there. Both films are great. Probably the two best docs you’ll see this year. But Banksy’s goal was to pull the covers back from the art world itself, while Davis wants to give the viewer an intimate peak into the life of an artist. In this case the tragic life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

For those who don’t know the story of Basquiat (or didn’t see the Julian Schnabel‘s bio-pic from the mid-90’s), he was an artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who started as a teenage graffiti writer in the streets of New York, became a world renowned art star by the time he was 22 and was found dead from a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

Davis was friends with the artist back in the eighties and filmed an interview with him at that time. Both artists were 23 back then and the intimacy of this interview actually allows us to see Basquiat as a vulnerable young man finding his place in the world.

Davis uses that 1983 interview and other period material that she shot back then as the backbone for the film. She also includes current interviews with many of the people from Basquiat’s life like Schnabel, Fab Five Freddy and Thurston Moore, but what’s great about these interviews is how Davis films them. She uses a single camera with room sound to match the original interview. That gives the whole film a consistent tone from beginning to end and the viewer is never pulled out of the film.

I talked to Davis about this the other day and she told me she knew that the film needed to be casual and intimate so she decided to film the new interviews herself with just a single camera. It works.

So does the music in the film. Music was a big part of Basquiat’s life and Davis knew she had to get it right if the film was to really recreate Basquiat’s life. The score is a combination of the music Basquiat loved like Dizzy Gillespie’s Bop classic “Salt Peanuts” which opens the film to repetitive classical piece Bolero by Ravel. The rest of the music was created specially for the film by Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz, otherwise known as Mike D, and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.

If you were thinking you’re going to hear something along the lines of “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” or “Sabotage” you would be wrong. The two musicians got together and created the kind of music that was played at the Mudd Club back in the early 80’s. According to Davis they even used the kinds of equipment they used back then to get an authentic sound. They certainly pull it off. Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re listening The Method Actors or some other legendary post punk act from 1982. Those are the kind of little details that make Radiant Child truly special.

For those of you who don’t know who Tamra Davis is, that’s a shame. She is truly an original. Coming out of the same 80’s DIY scene that gave us Katherine Bigelow, Penelope Spheeris and Allison Anders, Davis first made a splash with the groundbreaking Tone-Loc video for the song Wild Thing. For those who are too young to remember when mainstream radio refused to play hip-hop, punk or even college radio bands like R.E.M. on the nation’s airwaves, it might be hard to believe that a Tone-Loc video could be revolutionary. Trust me. It was.

Davis’ videos with Tone Loc, the Beastie Boys and Young MC were some of the first hip-hop or rap videos ever shown on MTV. Back when MTV actually showed music videos.

Check out some of these other names; Chris Rock (CB4), Drew Barrymore (Best Men), Adam Sandler (Billy Madison) and Dave Chappelle (Half Baked). Tamra Davis’s films helped all of these artists break through to mainstream acceptance. And she did it as a woman in some of the most male dominated genres around. Hip-hop and comedy.

I really hope people go out and see Radiant Child. This movie does what all great films do. Takes you away to another world for 90 minutes, in this case 1980’s New York, and then brings you back to reality with a big smile on your face.

That’s what it did for me. And that hasn’t happened a lot this summer.