If you’re not familiar with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s brief life you might be mystified at first by the affectionately crafted 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 1975, with then-President Gerald Ford’s voice heard talking about a city on the brink of default. Ford vowed to veto any bill seeking to bail out New York City because he believed, “The harder you try, the luckier you get. I kind of like that definition of luck.”
It was from this financial disaster that emerged 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 for his luck, although, in the end, that could not save him.
Now 62-year-old director Sara Driver knew Basquiat during that time. She interviews her life partner, 65-year-old Jim Jarmusch, as well. Both independent filmmakers were very much part of a social scene that would have given any parent nightmares. According to the filmmakers, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was dangerous and virtually lawless, a hotbed of creativity and illegal drug use.
Basquiat is introduced to the audience as a young and charming but mostly quiet and 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 he knew how to create buzz: Teaming with Al Diaz, Basquiat created an enigmatic series of graffiti under the nom de plume SAMO. 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 the band Test Pattern (later renamed Gray), and he appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s public-access show “TV Party.” To make ends meet, he painted on articles of clothing and sold photocopied artwork on postcards. He would sell a postcard to Andy Warhol — by then old news, but still an artist hero to Basquiat and his friends.
Because Driver was part of the action, she 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, whose photographs of Basquiat are featured in the film. Adler’s work was 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 one used by Basquiat to describe 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.
What the documentary doesn’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 New York City. Oh, and Basquiat would date and live with Madonna, paint in Armani suits and 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 heroin use for men was nothing more than a rite of passage. Cocaine is portrayed as something one needs to make it through long nights that stretch into early mornings.
Besides looking at Basquiat, the documentary gives us an idea about the cultural developments and the transition between art movements during the late 1970s in New York. 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.
While according to the director’s statement Driver’s purpose was to humanize and avoid “his mythification,” the documentary also avoids criticism of Basquiat himself and the lives that he and others maintained. The interviewees lived through that lifestyle, one which Basquiat himself did not survive, and that is something worth examining as well.
Nevertheless, this warmly nostalgic look at the artist is very much worth seeing, as it offers an intimate view of his friendships before fame.
“Boom for Real” opens in Los Angeles May 11. It will begin screening at Laemmle Playhouse 7 on May 18.