New Jean-Michel Basquiat Doc Precisely Locates 70s NYC but Blurry on Its Subject

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B

New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's brief life and meteoric career has been enshrined by his Lower East Side colleagues in three films now: the 1996 feature drama Basquiat from Julian Schnabel, and now the second documentary in two years, following Tamra Davis' Jean-Paul Basquiat: The Radiant Child.  

Each film mythologizes the scuzzy New York of the late-1970s, with its low-rent, high-crime rate, squalor, drugs and punk-inspired artistic fermentation, with Basquiat as a quasi-mystical figure rising from the filth.

The legend... Jean-Michel Basquiat

The legend... Jean-Michel Basquiat

Boom for Real is the first film in more than 20 years from Sara Driver, an insider on the scene, known as Jim Jarmusch's producer and partner, and director of two features (Sleepwalk, When Pigs Fly) and several shorts. While her return and insider position bring Boom For Real a certain cachet, there's little new here (the filmmaker Michael Holman, graffiti artist, Fred "Fab 5 Freddie" Braithwaite, the late journalist and scenester Glenn O'Brien all also appeared in Davis' film) though there are differences in approach.

While Radiant Child trumpeted a newly discovered 20-year-old interview with the artist, Driver avoids having Basquiat speak at all. Instead, he's depicted here as something like the spirit of the age who appears in archival photos, Super-8 film and video clips.

Ignoring Basquiat's early private-school education and troubled family life (his mother went into a psychiatric hospital when he was 13), Boom charts a period from him first arriving on the scene as a 17-year-old, chasing girls, couch surfing and scrounging his way into events.  He's seen with his slightly mocking smile, the charismatic Rimbaud-like boy genius, who fused punk, hip-hop, and a do-it-yourself aesthetic, black and white culture, graffiti and fine art.

Friends and roommates say that Basquiat was compulsively creative. He first made a name as a graffiti artist writing cryptic messages in block letters under the tag SAMO (as in "same old shit") with high school friend Al Diaz and later, selling hand-painted clothing in a boutique, starting an avant-garde noise band, and appearing on public access television. A club opening, a gallery show, a party, or going for a walk: there was Basquiat, flirting, making connections, stealing the show.

The film concludes about five years later when he sells his first painting to a major collector. Basquiat's uptown career took off as the New York downtown scene shut down, victim of burn-out and gentrification. Basquiat, who became rich, collaborated with Andy Warhol and became hooked on drugs, overdosing on heroin at 27 in 1988. Driver's final shot is of a rocket shooting into space — the angel ascends.

As an archival record of the time, Boom for Real is fascinating but as an artist's biography, it’s too narrow a window to be useful. By side-stepping Basquiat's upper middle–class background, his early museum experience, and his own spoken words, Boom for Real risks making Basquiat as a magical figure, all gift, not grit, and his genius was self-evident.  

For a skeptical perspective on Basquiat, race and the New York taste-masters in the 1980s, it's worth reading Robert Hughes' 1988 article on the artist in the New Republic, Requiem for a Featherweight, a harsh but useful corrective to the myth of the sacrificial young god.

Boom For Real: The Later Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written and directed by Sara Driver. With Luc Sante, Lee Quiñones, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, Patricia Field, Fab 5 Freddy, Sur Rodney, Alexis Adler, Michael Holman, Jennifer Jazz and Glenn O’Brien. Opens May 18 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.