In 1983 I was working at an art gallery in Los Angeles and going to film school at Los Angeles City College. At that time Jean-Michel Basquiat was a young painter and was visiting L.A. for his first show at the Larry Gagosian Gallery. He came to the gallery to visit a mutual friend, whom I worked with, and we immediately bonded over our love of cinema.
I started filming him painting for his show at Larry’s, and whenever he would come to Los Angeles, I would film him while we were hanging out. In 1985, when he was 25 and quite successful, I shot a lengthy interview with him. Our mutual friend Becky Johnston asked the questions.
Less than two years later he was dead. I took all my footage and put it away in drawer. I knew that one thing that made Jean-Michel very upset was when his friends sold work he had given them. I didn’t want him to think, even in death, that I was one of his friends who would sell his work for profit.
Twenty years later I was on a walk with a friend who was working on a great retrospective of Basquiat at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). When I told her about my footage, she asked to see it so I screened the 20-minute film I had cut. To everyone’s astonishment it became clear that the footage I possessed was a rare glimpse into, and a very intimate portrait of, one of America’s most important artists.
I knew then that my footage no longer belonged in my drawer. It was important for Jean-Michel’s voice to be heard and for the real story of what happened to be told.
I screened the short film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and met David Koh of Arthouse Films, who asked me if I could make the short into a feature.
Since then I’ve been on an incredible journey to interview those who were close to Jean-Michel and search for archival footage from a fantastic time in New York – the 1980s. With my original footage, these new interviews and a ton of archival footage, I constructed a film that is both documentary and a moving narrative.
The film is a very personal and intimate portrayal of an artist and my friend. I am so grateful to all the people who’ve helped me create an in-depth study of his life. He was an incredible artist who lived life to the fullest, died too young, and left an amazing body of work behind.
— Tamra Davis