Dead poet’s notoriety

Benjamin Bratt as “Mikey” Piñero: Tortured artist at work!

Benjamin Bratt as “Mikey” Piñero: Tortured artist at work!

Rated 2.0

Junkie poet and playwright Miguel “Mikey” Piñero says that he has to be bad to make his writing good so he steals, hustles, mainlines heroin, betrays his friends and makes multiple trips to prison. Is he serious here? Or merely deflecting bullets aimed at the very heart of his self-indulgent, recklessly criminal lifestyle?

Piñero the movie skirts this question and never makes it clear whether the Manhattan underbelly dweller and real-life celebrated Puerto Rican precursor of rap and poetry slams has a real clue about the value and impact of his talent.

For that misstep, the story presented in Piñero is neither tragic nor heroic nor deeply dramatic. It evolves as a stream of nonlinear impressions that mostly screams “Hard hat area—tortured artist at work!” but fails to transcend that very cliché to illuminate Piñero’s character and lurid life.

Piñero (excellently portrayed by Benjamin Bratt) is serving time in Sing Sing in 1972 for petty theft when he shares fevered recitations of his original street verse with fellow inmates. “At least I won’t have to sleep with my hand over my ass,” he says about his newfound respect among hardcore inmates.

He joins the prison’s artistic workshop and produces his first play, Short Eyes, which is jailhouse slang for pedophile. It’s the powerful, brutal story of a convicted child molester who is terrorized by other prisoners. Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) opens the play at his famed Public Theater on Broadway in 1974. It is nominated for an unprecedented six Tonys and filmed in 1976 with Bruce Davison in the lead role.

These events jump-started Piñero’s writing and performing career. He goes on to write and act in featured films such as Fort Apache: the Bronx and such TV shows as Miami Vice. He co-founds the Nuyorican Poets Café with friend, mentor and Rutgers professor Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), continues his use of drugs and bisexual affairs and becomes a notorious icon of the Lower East Side. His self-destructive demons leave him homeless and suffering from cirrhosis of the liver (he undertakes a bizarre street quest to find an organ replacement) before his death in 1988 at the age of 41.

The film chronicles these events in a sort of skittish sensory jam session. Writer-director Leon Ichaso (Sugar Hill, Crossover Dreams) cross-cuts black-and-white digital video with color 16mm film into a blitzkrieg of imagery fueled by a vivid Latin jazz soundtrack. It’s a dizzy homage to Piñero’s free-form work.

The story slips back and forth in time, hitting a few provocative notes as it blurs the line between intrinsic and extrinsic inspiration before the weight of pop mythology crushes the wind from its lungs. It ignores Piñero’s reported AIDS infection (even though it mentions that Algarin is HIV-positive)—a missing link in Piñero’s downward spiral. It also softens Piñero’s actions by implying one sexual assault rather than showing it on screen, and keeping his other assaults and robberies to the rich (women in fur coats) and the deserving (drug dealers).

Piñero threatens to break out into an exhilarating, free-form shout of rebellion, charisma, desperation, anger and indignity when the poet reads his works. His performance on a New York rooftop before TV cameras is especially dynamic, but the film needs more of these injections.

The revelation here is not of Piñero but rather of Bratt, who stars as the titular manipulator, outlaw and jealous artist. The Law & Order detective credibly peers through a drug-induced haze, emphasizing words by stabbing the air with partially diminished cigarettes as he attacks poverty and discrimination and embraces the same vices that fan the flames of both social plights. He does for Piñero what Dustin Hoffman did for Lenny, Ed Harris for Pollock and for Jeffery Wright for Basquiat: inject a sense of authenticity into elusive truth. Other characters who slither in and out of the story are Piñero’s mother (Rita Moreno), protégé Reinaldo Povod (Michael Irby), lover Sugar (Talisa Soto), and abusive father (Jamie Sanchez).

Piñero is a movie of attitude that—much like its main character—consumes itself. “We got the city by the balls,” says Piñero as he mixes with New York’s elite. Its too bad Ichaso can’t capture Piñero in the same grip.