'Shadowman': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Sheds a valuable light on its troubled subject.

Oren Jacoby's documentary profiles the life and career of famed 1980s street artist Richard Hambleton.

Oren Jacoby’s documentary Shadowman chronicles the life and career of Richard Hambleton, one of three figures who dominated the outsider art scene in 1980s New York. But unlike his contemporaries Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, as one of the film’s commentators waggishly puts it, each made the “good career move” of dying young, Hambleton squandered his success with a crippling drug addiction. The doc, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, achieves its goal of shining a spotlight on its subject while delivering a fascinating true-life tale.

The film begins with grainy footage, shot late at night on in the Lower East Side in 1981, showing Hambleton quickly painting one of his iconic shadowy figures on a building. We learn that the Canadian-born artist received formal training in Vancouver and made a name for himself with his “Image Mass Murder” series of mock crime scenes featuring outlines of bodies and red paint suggesting blood. He painted these provocative pieces in various cities across the U.S., much to the displeasure of local police departments, before making his way to New York City.

Achieving prominence through his “Shadowman” paintings that were ubiquitous in the city’s downtown neighborhoods, Hambleton became a darling of the art world. Hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol and his new friends Haring and Basquiat, he cut a wide swatch on the social scene, with his handsome looks and stylish fashion sense attracting throngs of adoring women. He basked in his fame, which resulted in a Life magazine cover story and increasing prices for his artworks. At the peak of his commercial success, he left the New York and traveled the world, painting a Shadowman on the Berlin Wall and expanding his style to include landscapes and seascapes.

As with many of his downtown contemporaries, he fell victim to addiction, becoming a junkie and frequently reduced to homelessness. His many ailments included scoliosis and skin cancer, for which he refused treatment, with the result that his face became severely deformed. But he never lost his creative urge, sometimes even using his own blood as paint. Even after making a comeback two decades later, he was his own worst enemy, sabotaging his renewed success.

“He so self-destructive, but he won’t die,” one of Hambleton’s friends comments. The film relates his tale in compelling if not surprising fashion, using the obligatory Studio 54 footage and soundtrack featuring Talking Heads, Blondie and The Ramones, among others, to set the scene. Such downtown mainstays as musician Richard Hell and performance artist Penny Arcade, as well as numerous friends and colleagues of Hambleton, provide vivid testimony about his rise and fall. But it’s the artist himself, still indomitable of spirit even while looking like a horror film character, who gives Shadowman its grotesque fascination.

Production company: Storyville Films
Director-producer: Oren Jacoby
Executive producers: Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, Carolyn Hepburn, Andrew Valmorbida
Directors of photography: Tom Hurwitz, Oren Jacoby, Robert Richman
Editor: Abbay Sofsky
Composer: Joel Goodman
Sales: Submarine
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

83 minutes