There’s something about artists that makes them compelling biopic subjects, especially if there’s something sexy, traumatic, Bohemian and otherwise scandalous about their personal life. In honor of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s birthday — he would have been 51 today — we present a few recommendations, just to get you started. Here you will find those dramatic details artfully exploited on celluloid with various degrees of salaciousness and, we hope, some valuable background on Bacon’s, Van Gogh’s, and Kahlo’s actual artistic careers. First up? The birthday boy himself.
Julian Schnabel’s stylish film debut depicted NYC legend Jean-Michel Basquiat and his surrounding crowd of art-world big guns, friends, and fiends… or, in the case of Andy Warhol (played by David Bowie), all three. The first “major movie” about a painter by a painter, it’s all the drama of brilliant Basquiat’s life — from his rise to fame as a rebel graffiti poet neo-expressionist to his death by speedball — further dramatized by artist-in-crisis-empathizing Schnabel. What else? “Back in the day” New York City nostalgia. Classic soundtrack. Impressive cast. Surprises (Vincent Gallo plays himself. Remember GRAY?) Just make sure to supplement with viewing Basquiat’s actual work since the film bombards you with quality fakes, painted by Schnabel himself.
The moment small-time thief George Dyer (Daniel Craig) crashes into Francis Bacon’s studio, the central story of this John Maybury-directed BBC biopic begins. Talk about appropriate titles — all the rapture and devastation of this mutually parasitic love affair is aptly echoed in the movie’s tone and design. At one point, George appears to be consumed by Bacon’s canvases as they are manifested in film: The set design is suddenly abstract, with bare-boned pillars as rooms, and George’s flesh is stretched apart through the use of a mirror effect. Oh, and Tilda Swinton is pretty badass in this.
Vincent & Theo (1990)
Directed by master filmmaker Robert Altman, this is one of many films about Van Gogh. It’s particularly notable for Tim Roth’s apt channeling of the artist’s storied, disputed madness. Brotherly conflicts between Vincent and art dealer Theodore Van Gogh are explored. Tantrums are had. Painting is reinvented. Egos are exploded. Sunflowers stare, stare, and stare judgingly.
Andrei Rublev (1969)
This black-and-white gem from master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky revolves around the life of 15th-century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. Pagan love making! DIY flying machines! Torture by melted metal cross! But mostly, a gorgeously drawn portrait of Medieval Russia. Several versions exist due to the edited copy released by knee-jerkingly atheist and politically sensitive censors in the Soviet Union and equally annoying cuts “for commercial reasons” for the US release. Do yourself a favor and get yourself some pure, uncut Tarkovsky.
Surrealist Frida Kahlo’s life was so replete with personal trauma, erotic fracas, ego-clashing, and even murderous intrigue, it makes sense that this sumptuous flick was made (and directed by Julie Taymor, no less). Kahlo’s turbulent relationship with fresco painter Diego Rivera is the dramatic centerpiece. Her affair with Josephine Baker is treated as a fleeting, scintillating flourish. The film is very accessible and saucily provocative, but can you blame it?
Austrian art-house biopic starring John Malkovich? Yes, please. The film follows the Symbolist Gustav Klimt, his story framed by the memories that haunt his syphilis-ridden mind as he’s dying in a Viennese hospital. Debate the merits and perils of this film all you want, but you can’t argue the Nikolai Kinski’s (Klaus Kinksi’s son) striking resemblance to Klimt’s protégé/pervy free spirit Egon Schiele.
Don’t get hung up on the anachronisms, like the electric lights in a bar where art history’s bad boy went a-drinkin’ and a-brawlin’. This Derek Jarman-directed film is beautiful and engrossing. It also stars Tilda Swinton in her first film role, as an artist’s model embroiled in a love triangle with her street fighter boyfriend and Caravaggio. Very tragic, dramatic events ensue, but we won’t spoil them more than we already have.
Capitalizing on all the drama that rampant alcoholism and diagnosed neurosis so readily lends to film, this notorious Jackson Pollock biopic is a crowd favorite. It’s also an Ed Harris favorite — the director/star followed an obsessive, lifelong dream to make the movie, shot it in just 50 days (with a 40-day break to grow a beard and gain 30 pounds), and made all the faux-Pollock paintings himself. Don’t you owe Harris the tribute of renting it?
Moulin Rouge (1952)
Aside from all the awards, one notable element of this production is José Ferrer’s commitment to his role — the actor spent the entire film walking on his knees with his calves strapped up in order to accurately simulate Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s short stance. We also need to mention the appearance of Zsa Zsa Gabor, one of the many distractions Moulin Rouge will make you navigate on your journey through the artist’s life. It’s a party!
Camille Claudel (1988)
This popular French film tells the story of the 19th-century sculptor Camille Claudel and her passionate, problematic relationship with legendary sculptor Auguste Rodin as he nurtures, tortures, and helps her overcome the prejudices against female artists. That last bit is still something of a problem, if this roundup’s low “weenie count” is any indication. Ahem.
Did we miss your favorite? Drop us a comment so we can wise up.