From homeless runaway to superstar of the 1970s Downtown New York City art scene, Sara Driver’s new documentary Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is a portrait of an artist as a young man.
For those perhaps unfamiliar with Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of the artist in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat, that film covered the eponymous artist’s life in broad strokes and largely removed from the rest of the art scene happening around him.
By contrast, Driver paints more of a landscape of an entire burgeoning movement both developing around the street artist and for which Basquiat would become most known. A whole generation before Banksy, teenage Basquiat was turning the walls of lower Manhattan into his personal canvas as the mysterious “SAMO.”
Fortunately for Driver, that wasn’t so long ago that she wasn’t able to capitalize on a treasure trove of archival footage of the artist during those early years, nor assemble an impressive line-up of Basquiat’s contemporaries, luminaries, and personal acquaintances — from filmmaker and friend Jim Jarmusch to critic Luc Sante — to offer their own perspectives and insights into the late artist and his significance within the art world.
Looking at Basquiat’s beginnings, it recalls that famous line from The Big Lebowski: “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” That’s Jean-Michel Basquiat in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 70s.
Driver illustrates his historical context by opening the film with President Ford’s infamous speech vowing to veto any federal spending bill to bail out the bankrupt city in the wake of white flight to the suburbs to escape the influx of minorities.
Teenage Jean-Michel Basquiat, a destitute vagabond, built his career on the ruins of New York City’s crumbling infrastructure, tagging walls with “SAMO” next to whatever impulsive political statement or musing struck his fancy at the moment.
The story of Basquiat’s rise to prominence is inescapably a transgressive one. Viewed through the lens of Marxist critique, this poor kid subverted the normal rules of social and racial class by elevating vandalism to street art and achieving acceptance among the very haves who wouldn’t have given have-nots like him the time of day had his work not been embraced by the wealthy mainstream art world.
The art of Basquiat was the literal embodiment of the old expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” One musician Basquiat played with recounts an instance where he’d built an elaborate avant-garde setup on stage. Basquiat arrived late, looked at the stage setup, and left only to emerge a few minutes later with a giant crate he could only have found just outside in the alley. He located an appropriate placement for the crate on stage and then crawled into it, playing while poking out the top in a way that, at once, perfectly fit the already established aesthetic and drew focus onto himself.
There was another period in his teen years where he’d made a habit of turning his friends’ clothes into a canvas for his art, sometimes without consent. Soon enough a local clothing retailer sanctioned his creating one-of-a-kind art on individual products to be sold to the public under his “MAN MADE” brand.
But Basquiat wasn’t alone. Behemians and fellow graffiti artists like Keith Haring hung out and establish gallery space at the Mudd Club and Club 57, which united both the punk and hip hop scenes.
It’s because of the film’s laser focus on what was happening in the counterculture at this precise moment in time that Boom For Real is not afforded the opportunity to delve into how these artists laid the groundwork that would inspire artists a generation later.
Coming so soon on the heels of filmmaker Agnes Varda and anonymous street artist JR’s recent collaborative documentary Faces Places, it’s nearly impossible not to view the two films as companion pieces. Indeed, there are even striking parallels between Basquiat and the fictional protagonist of Varda’s earlier 1985 film Vagabond.
Add Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and the three films — Exit, Faces Places, and Boom For Real — make for a compelling trilogy providing a rich exploration of the history of modern street art.
But, if there’s one fault with the film, it’s that the Basquiat we see is only viewed through rose-tinted glasses. We hear from his friends and colleagues who have nothing negative to say about the man, but we never hear from his critics. Nobody’s perfect, and it would have been nice to hear another side to his story.
Beyond its central figure and the art movement he inhabited, Boom For Real is a uniquely New York story, a snapshot of a Manhattan so abandoned and forgotten by its own government — so in disrepair — Driver reminds us of just how much of a wasteland the city had become with a haunting clip from James Nare’s short film “Pendulum” featuring a wrecking ball swinging back and forth through apocalyptically deserted streets. The legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his contemporaries is that they made art out of ruins, turned unsightly urban blight into splendid urban scrawl. And, in the process, they changed our definition of what it means to be art.
Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens theatrically on May 11th.
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