If you’re not familiar with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s brief life, you might be mystified at first by the affectionate documentary “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” The documentary begins with grainy black and white footage of New York City in 1978 with then-President Gerald Ford’s voice is heard talking about a city on the brink of default. Ford vowed to veto any bill seeking to bail New York City out because he believed, “The harder you try, the luckier you get” because he noted, “I kind of like that definition of luck.”
New York City, we now know, did rise and yet within the seemingly doomed city a great creativity was percolating. From out of this financial disaster, rose a street culture that would eventually legitimize graffiti artists and found object street artists like Basquiat who we see in his early years, hungry to become famous. Basquiat worked hard and smart for his luck although that couldn’t save him in the end.
The now 62-year-old director Sara Driver knew Basquiat during the time period covered and she interviews her and his acquaintances, including her life partner, the 65-year-old Jim Jarmusch, as well. Both of the independent filmmakers were very much part of the scene that would have given any parent nightmares. According to the filmmakers, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a hotbed creativity and drug use, dangerous and nearly lawless. What we are seeing here are the survivors and they are remembering a young man who didn’t survive.
Basquiat is introduced to the audience as a young, charming but mostly quiet homeless 16-year-old, often looking for some place to crash in between late nights and early mornings at various clubs. He obviously wasn’t attending school but we aren’t told that he was once enrolled in a private school. What he has in his favor: He knew how to create buzz: Teaming with Al Diaz, Basquiat created an enigmatic series of graffiti under the nom de plume: SAMO. Think of that as the “same old” crap.
Eventually bitterly breaking up with Diaz, Basquiat used SAMO to get the attention of the denizens of the SoHo art district but that wasn’t the only way he gained visibility. He also became part of a band: Test Pattern (later renamed Gray) and he appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s public-access TV show called “TV Party.” To make ends meet, he painted on articles of clothing and sold photocopied artwork on postcards. That wasn’t enough to pay rent so he crashed with other people and we learn about his fights with other couch surfing artists and how they became family (as if he didn’t have a real one). He would sell a postcard to Andy Warhol–by that time old news, but still an artist hero to Basquiat and his friends.
Because Driver was part of the scene, she knowingly interviews with ease and familiarity a variety of people who made up the scene, including writer and cultural critic Luc Sante, visual artist Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite), graffiti artist Lee Quiñones and scientist Alexis Adler who photographed Basquiat and whose photographs are featured in the movie. Adler’s photos were part of a recent exhibit at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. Another recent art exhibit in Great Britain used the same title, “Boom for Real.” The phrase was how Basquiat described his process of taking inspiration and creating something explosive on canvas. The documentary ends with a taste of the fame to come after Basquiat sells a painting for a tidy sum.
What the documentary won’t tell you is that his parents were separated (but never divorced), he had two younger sisters, his mother was institutionalized when he was 13 and his Haitian-born father was in NYC. Oh, and Basquiat would date and live with Madonna, would paint in Armani suits and he would die at age 27 from a heroin overdose. Certainly heroin and cocaine usage is mentioned in the documentary, but with such superficial acknowledgement that it seems like nothing more than a right of passage (heroin) for men and cocaine is something you need for the long nights that stretch into early mornings.
Besides looking at Basquiat, the documentary plunges us into the cultural developments and the transition between art movements during the late 1970s in NYC. It touches on Basquiat’s blackness in the face of a predominately white art scene, but doesn’t delve too deeply. Of course, more powerful statements would come such as his “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” which addressed the 1983 killing of a black graffiti artist by police in the pre-Black Lives Matter era.
Since his death in 1988, Basquiat has inspired other artists and is referenced in literature and music. This isn’t the first film about him, either. The 2009 documentary “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” premiered at Sundance and was aired on PBS under its Independent Lens series in 2011. His paintings have been making the news, too: Last year, a 1982 Basquiat painting sold at a Sotheby auction for $110,500. He is considered one of the influential artists of his time.
While according to the director’s statement, Driver’s purpose was to humanize and avoid “his mythification,” the documentary also avoids criticism of the lifestyle and of Basquiat himself. The interviewees are survivors of a lifestyle that Basquiat himself did not survive and that’s something worth examining, too. That isn’t to say this warmly nostalgic look at the artist isn’t worth seeing as it does give an intimate view of his friendships before fame. The film opened in Los Angeles on May 11 and “Boom for Real” opened at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 on May 18.
Written for the Pasadena Weekly