By Janine Gericke.
Clocking in at a cool 78 minutes, Sara Driver’s documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a Basquiat crash course. The film provides insight into the teenager he was and the artist he became. Named after Basquiat’s catchphrase, Boom for Real uses archival film footage, narrative film footage (mostly from the film Downtown ‘81), interviews with Basquiat’s friends, and some clever animation to set the scene for the early life of an enigmatic artist. Is this only a film for people who love and appreciate art? Not necessarily. I first discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat when friends and I watched Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat on VHS. That was about the extent of my knowledge. That said, I’d recommend Driver’s film to anyone who is not only curious about the evolution of this artist but also curious how the art world flourished in the crumbling New York City of the 1970s.
In the late 1970s New York was in financial crisis. The streets were empty, drugs were rampant, and crime was at an all time high. The city was literally on fire. Punk Rock and Hip Hop were on the rise and graffiti was pushing the underground art scene to new heights. For these artists, the graffiti movement was a form of expression, a comment on the city itself. Out of all of this grew a young Jean-Michel Basquiat. Everyone seemed to know him. “He was striking once you met him,” describes filmmaker and friend Jim Jarmusch, “it’s like you [already] knew him.” Basquiat was described as charismatic and he had a way of drawing people to him. Jarmusch recalls a time when he and his partner, the film’s director Sara Driver, ran into Basquiat on the street. Basquiat said hello, and then quickly took off down the street, only to return shortly with a flower for Driver, simply stating, “You’re beautiful,” then he was gone. “He was always trying to steal the girls,” says Jarmusch with a laugh.
In the late ‘70s, Basquiat and one of his closest friends, Al Diaz, began spray painting graffiti all over downtown NYC, under the moniker SAMO (Same Old). Their graffiti was everywhere, but no one had any idea who it was. They weren’t just tagging the name SAMO, they were tagging their thoughts and opinions, jokes, just making a statement. In 1978, the Village Voice wrote a piece about SAMO, which revealed who the artists were. Once people started talking about it, Basquiat saw an opportunity. He began doing his own solo graffiti, using the SAMO moniker, which caused a major strain on his friendship with Diaz. According to Diaz, Basquiat was never really a part of the graffiti art culture. He was an artist, a writer, someone who knew he would be famous one day by creating art that made people think. Curator and Associate Publisher of the art and literary magazine BOMB, Mary-Ann Monforton describes Basquiat’s graffiti as “something to consider.” His graffiti became his jumping-off point. From there, he became a sensation in the art world and developed friendships with many people, including Fab 5 Freddy and Andy Warhol.
After viewing Boom for Real, I get the sense that not only did Basquiat know he was going to be famous, but so did everyone else. Listening to his friends reminisce, you hear their love and respect for him and his work. Friend and girlfriend Alexis Adler warmly recounts her time living with Basquiat in an apartment on East 12th Street. Basquiat was a teenage runaway, living on the streets, but he had a lot of friends who were happy to help him out by giving him a place to stay. Not only was their home Basquiat’s first stable apartment, but it was a floor-to-ceiling canvas. He saw potential in everything and didn’t hesitate to make objects his own. Luckily, Adler has held onto most of his writings and paintings, as well as photographs that she took of him all those years.
Overall, Boom for Real is a beautifully made film about a complicated artist who was gone too soon. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. The film covers a lot of ground, from Basquiat selling a postcard to Andy Warhol, to his band Gray, which he started with artist Michael Holman, to his love of Industrial music, which he would blast on his boombox. There is also a wealth of interviews with so many amazing artists and friends, all people who built their careers during the same tumultuous time in NYC. Artists like Patricia Field, graffiti artist Lee Quinones, and Fab 5 Freddy, just to name a few. Far too much to cover in just one review, which isn’t a bad thing.
Basquiat made such an impact on so many people, and those same people helped influence a growing artist. In the film, friend and musician Felice Rosser says, “When people talk about Leonardo DaVinci, and when they talk about Jackson Pollock, they will also mention Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Is this still true? I think so. If you’re curious about who Basquiat was, maybe you will be intrigued after watching this film, too. In a director’s statement, Driver says, “I like to think of him as a cross between Rimbaud and Mozart – a brilliant, poetic prankster whose creative impulses were on fire.” I think that Driver has done an excellent job at conveying this. She has created a portrait of a young man who found his calling. She has also assembled a beautiful memorial, allowing so many friends to speak so genuinely about their radiant friend. I’m sure the conversation will only continue. I know there are so many more stories to tell.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.