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The Goddess and the Graffitist.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MARCH 16, 1998: 

They had a lot in common, these two: Nico, the German model-singer-actress and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Haitian-American street painter. They were both stars of the New York art scene (Nico in the '60s, Basquiat in the '80s) and protégés of Andy Warhol. They were both junkies. They're both dead. And they're both the subject of recent films.

The movies—Nico Icon (1997), a documentary, and Basquiat (1997, R), a biopic—unmask other similarities. The icy Aryan goddess and the ragged spray-paint virtuoso were both alien and alienated, artists without a homeland, driven by narcissistic self-loathing that turned against anyone who got too close.

Nico Icon is the better film, mostly because it puts us closer to its subject via a wealth of archival footage. It has all sorts of insights and jagged edges—ruminations on the meaning of beauty, a sense of the specter that haunted post-war Germany, anecdotes that are by turns hilarious, hallucinatory, and horrifying (as when Nico introduced her teenage son to heroin). Although the testimony of various people who knew and loved her is fascinating, it's the images, words, and music of Nico herself—those vacant eyes, that flat Teutonic voice—that say the most. The film opens with the classic Velvet Underground song "I'll Be Your Mirror," one of a handful Nico sang on the band's legendary first album, and it's a perfect summation of the detached, dissolute life story that follows: "I'll be your mirror/Reflect what you are/In case you don't know..."

Basquiat is warmer in some ways but less engrossing. Directed by artist Julian Schnabel, a friend of Basquiat's, it takes itself and its milieu a little too seriously. It's an insider's view of the '80s art world that decries the commercialization of art and the exploitation of artists at the same time it perpetuates them. It has a cast so cool it almost seems like a parody of hipness—David Bowie (in a nice turn as Warhol), Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Courtney Love—and it doesn't know what to do with all of them. As for Schnabel, he may be a fine painter, but he apparently learned most of what he knows about cinema from MTV. Fortunately, the movie has newcomer Jeffrey Wright in the title role, and his charismatic performance fills in some of the arty gaps.

Gary Oldman had the lead in another, better movie about a self-destructive icon, Alex Cox's funny, nightmarish Sid and Nancy (1986, R). As talentless punk Sid Vicious and his dopey girlfriend Nancy Spungen, Oldman and Chloe Webb are convincingly pathetic but somehow engaging. It's a grimy, ribald fairy tale about people with nothing to live for but each other.

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