Touching briefly on its subject's childhood as a Jewish kid in Brownsville, Texas, the film surveys Schnabel's explosive New York art-scene debut, in the mid-1970s, and his 1980s stardom. He was a young gun challenging the orthodoxies of the previous generation in the best possible way -- with authenticity, integrity and original style. During a period when painting was out of favor, he made it acceptable again, and his methods became trends that persist today.
By the yardstick of Michael Jordan's midcareer transition to baseball, Schnabel's reinvention as a film director in the 1990s should have been a forgettable detour. But his visual sensibility and his familiarity with the art scene imbue Basquiat with authenticity and beauty out of reach for other directors. The 1996 biopic of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, a friend of Schnabel's, was critically acclaimed. The artist followed it with Before Night Falls and, most recently, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
One of Portrait's strongest threads is Schnabel's connection to major artistic figures now lost. Good old Laurie Anderson relates his involvement with one of the final performances by her husband, Lou Reed: a series of filmed projections that accompanied the show. The sequence becomes a sweet, unexpected requiem for the late songwriter.