Film Review: Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Both biography and elegy, this evocative documentary about the early evolution of art-world prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat places him in the context of one of the most fertile creative times New York City ever experienced.
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Opening with audio of President Gerald Ford smugly proclaiming his willingness to let the cultural, media and economic capital of America go bankrupt, Sara Driver's documentary about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's fledgling years is also a larger story about New York City in the late 1970s and early ’80s—an elegy for the last great creative burst of an increasingly homogenized town, when despite crime and decay there was a freedom undreamt of today. From rap to graffiti art to breakdancing to punk rock to the gonzo humor of National Lampoon and "Saturday Night Live," New York was the hub of a condensed Renaissance, a Big Bang of creativity unmatched since.

Basquiat was a big part of that, as were many of the artists, writers, filmmakers, club kids and others that Driver, herself a denizen of that demimonde, chronicles with both affection and objective distance. There's no sentimental romanticism, other than reportage of what romanticism existed. Heroin "was definitely considered a rite of passage for a lot of the young guys who thought it would give them some kind of pathway into a deeper creativity" and many of whose heroes had also done heroin, remembers writer and performance artist Jennifer Jazz. Cultural critic Carlo McCormick recalls the ever-present cocaine and heroin, the latter of which had "a whole lot of mythologies attached."

Those mythologies would contribute to Basquiat's death at age 27, in 1988, of a heroin overdose. But in his early days, before his first big sale to collector and curator Henry Geldzahler in the early ’80s, Basquiat epitomized the peculiarly ambitious, fame-chasing artist of the era, branding himself before the term "self-branding" ever existed.

Author Luc Sante and others set the stage of a desolate Lower East Side and a drug-bazaar East Village, where low rents and empty buildings suitable for squatting fostered a concentration of creative types, as had the empty manufacturing lofts of Soho a decade earlier. "We wanted turbulence, we wanted risk, we wanted danger and we wanted to play to a crowd," says artist and filmmaker James Naras. "There were a couple of years, it seemed, when everybody knew everybody and everybody was doing everything."

And everybody knew Basquiat—hip-hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, artist Kenny Scharf, experimental filmmaker and artist-collective co-founder Coleen Fitzgibbon, graffiti god Lee Quiñones, the late writer and scene-maker Glenn O'Brien, and writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Driver's longtime partner, are all among the eyewitnesses to the burgeoining Basquiat. Mary-Ann Monforton, associate publisher of Bomb magazine, recalls sitting with him on her stoop, smoking joints, finding him "so charismatic and interesting." And for all his eccentricities, she says, people were "crazy about him."

That included friend and lover Alexis Adler, an embryologist who was among the many people with whom the essentially homeless teenage Basquiat would crash. They eventually wound up living together in her apartment on East 12th Street, when he was about 18 and she about 22. "I never felt that he was my boyfriend, but we did have sex," she says of their time together in that fabled flat. The walls and floors were his canvas, and in 2014 Adler famously put much of that art up for auction at Christie's.

Not that his constant hustle didn't tromp on trust. Basquiat's anonymous street art had initially gained attention through his collaborations with fellow graffitist Al Diaz. They wrote a series of enigmatic epigrams, all with the tag SAMO—as in "same old shit," Diaz explains. But following a groundbreaking Village Voice article about SAMO and graffiti art in general, Diaz became Basquiat's Pete Best. "He wanted to be the face for SAMO," Diaz recalls. "I was kind of bitter about it."

Driver, with the inside knowledge of someone who was there, fills the documentary with vintage film, video and ephemera, some of it likely priceless when one considers that Basquiat's 1982 "Untitled" sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby's in 2017, setting a record for the most pricey painting ever auctioned. She guides us through the famous "Times Square Show" art show of June 1980, and Diego Cortez's 1981 show "New York\New Wave," which cemented Basquiat's reputation.

That creative movement's days would prove to be as numbered as Basquiat's. But Driver's time-machine talent for recreating them makes Boom for Real much more than an artist's early-life biography. Jennifer Jazz calls Basquiat's work "the most vivid representation of an era." That is equally true of this film.

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