VOD film review: Keith Haring: Street Art Boy
Matthew Turner | On 04, Jul 2020
Director: Ben Anthony
Cast: Keith Haring, Kristen Haring, Ann Magnuson, Drew B. Straub, Judith Gruen, Kenny Scharf, Bruno Schmidt, Samantha McEwan
Watch Keith Haring: Street Art Boy online in the UK: BBC iPlayer
Directed by Ben Anthony, this superb documentary tells the story of artist and activist Keith Haring, charting his life and career until his death from AIDS in 1990, at the age of 31. Much of the story is told in Haring’s own words, thanks to extensive taped interviews conducted by Haring’s biographer, John Gruen.
Alongside Haring’s own words, Anthony includes multiple to-camera interviews with Haring’s family, friends, collaborators and contemporaries. Each of them speaks candidly and warmly about Haring and if there are negative stories, such as his post-fame vanity, then they’re frequently laughed off with an amusing anecdote, such as the time one of his friends prank called him, pretending he was Michael Jackson.
Haring effectively telling his whole story for his biographer proves a gift for the film. He takes us through his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, with childhood friend Kermit Oswald noting that he was always an activist and that he used to graffiti slogans with bars of soap. Haring’s accounts are refreshingly candid throughout, such as when he recounts a brief obsession with the Jesus Movement, before he discovered narcotics and replaced Jesus with drugs.
Using strong soundtrack choices and pacy editing, Anthony perfectly captures Haring’s phenomenal energy and drive to create. His artistic momentum is fascinating in itself – even at art school (he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1978, at the age of 20), he was constantly putting up his work all over the walls, and it’s easy to see how that impulse fed directly into his passion for graffiti.
Throughout the film, Anthony provides comprehensive cultural and political context for Haring’s work, using a combination of talking head contributions and a wealth of archive material. To that end, it’s intriguing to see the political activism in his earlier work, such as the cut-up newspaper headlines (borrowing a technique from William S. Burroughs) that he plastered all over New York in the wake of Reagan’s election (“REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP”, “POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE”, and so on).
Around the same time, Haring’s career took off thanks to the popularity of his graffiti images around New York, notably the famous dog and “The Radiant Baby” outline drawings. As his contemporaries muse, some more ruefully than others, “suddenly it was okay to make money”. Certainly, Haring’s rise to fame and fortune was nothing less than meteoric, bolstered by multiple exhibitions all over the world and the opening of the Pop Shop (which made his art accessible at reasonable prices) in New York in 1986.
The archive material is particularly impressive, especially during Haring’s ascension to New York celebrity – highlights include Madonna performing at one of his legendary parties and footage of him painting Grace Jones for two live concerts. However, there’s a flipside to this celebrity that hits hard – as the film notes, once Haring was diagnosed with AIDS (and talked movingly about it in a candid and brave Rolling Stone interview), the celebrity invites dried up overnight.
The film also explores how Haring’s sexuality informed his artwork, both pre and post-diagnosis. It recounts his obsession with sex, illustrating the proliferation of line-drawing penises in his artwork, with flatmate and friend Drew B. Straub fondly recalling their cartoon penis wallpaper. Finally, the film charts how Haring’s terminal diagnosis ramped up his artistic output, using his artwork to draw attention to the AIDS crisis and raise awareness, while channelling his proceeds into funding AIDS activism.
Anthony ends the film on a heartbreaking note, with a subtle but powerful piece of direction, whereby he quickly cuts between still, silent shots of all the vibrant and cheerful talking head contributors we’ve been watching as they all recall Haring’s last days. One especially poignant detail, recounted by friend and contemporary Kenny Scharf, is Haring’s last piece of artwork – a tiny drawing of “The Radiant Baby” he attempted at Scharf’s request from his deathbed.
Keith Haring: Street Art Boy is available on BBC iPlayer until 13th October 2021