An untitled painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110 million in 2017, making it one of the priciest artworks ever auctioned. That astronomical sum is light years away from anything in the New York City portrayed in Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Director Sara Driver’s documentary traces Basquiat’s creative origins through interviews and archival footage. To set the stage, Driver begins the film with audio of President Gerald Ford essentially telling the broke New York City to “drop dead” over clips of the grimy, abandoned Lower East Side.
A Polish bar blared Bobby Vinton music out into the night on eerily silent streets while drug dealers plied their trade. The few artists and creative types who lived in the area's mostly abandoned buildings hung out together, smoking pot and talking on their front stoops for hours.This is the backdrop that provided Basquiat with the tools and inspiration for his art.
Basquiat and his artistic partner, Al Diaz, worked together as SAMO (as in “Same old you-know what”) writing graffiti and poetry on public spaces in part as a critique of the prevailing elitist art culture in New York. SAMO ended as a duo in 1979 when Basquiat branched out on his own.
Basquiat’s creativity seemed to spring naturally from him, and he used whatever materials were at hand. He would use the floors and walls of friends’ apartments as canvases. Even refrigerators were turned into works of art. He wanted fame, like another Lower East Side fixture of the time, Madonna. (Unsurprisingly, Basquiat and Madonna were an item at one point in the early ‘80s.)
Jean-Michel listened to industrial music on his boombox - not the rap or punk that provided the soundtrack for the L.E.S. He made his own way and didn’t adhere to the fads of the time, though he hung out at all the local music clubs where Blondie, The Talking Heads, and other bands played.
Later, Basquiat discovered bebop and jazz through his friendship with Fab 5 Freddy Braithwaite, and played clarinet in the band Gray. (The band's name was inspired by Gray's Anatomy, one of the main inspirations for his artwork.) For one performance, bandmate Michael Holman recalls, Basquiat fashioned a spur-of-the-moment prop from a shipping crate he found on the street and used it to position himself as the focal point of the performance.
He painted on clothing and fabrics. (Patricia Field featured them in one of her shops, and remembers Jean-Michel asking for exorbitant prices of some of his art even though he was still a relative unknown.) Along the way, he sold one of his postcards to Andy Warhol. After exhibiting his work in a few art shows later including the infamous Colab show in Times Square, he became the toast of the New York galleries. Curator Henry Geldzahler bought one of his paintings, and this began Basquiat’s ascension from the streets to the pinnacle of the art world.
We don’t hear about Basquiat’s life before he moved to Lower Manhattan in Boom for Real. The film showcases the barren atmosphere of the Lower East Side and the cast of characters who weaved in and out of the Basquiat’s life as much as it emphasizes the artist’s charisma and inventiveness.
Boom for Real is aimed at viewers who are already somewhat familiar with Basquiat and/or the corresponding New York arts scene. If you aren’t familiar with New York of the late ‘70s, it will sure defuse all those romantic notions about “Dirty Old 1970s New York”. The artists were cool, but the landscape, though primed for creative inspiration, was pretty dangerous.
Driver interviews the people who knew who knew Basquiat before Warhol, fame, and the heroin addiction that killed him at 27. Basquiat was part of a core group of a few dozen people who comprised a music and art scene that fascinates observers to this day. The artists and scenemakers interviewed for Boom for Real include Fab Five Freddy, embryologist Alexis Adler, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, artist James Nares, artist Kenny Scharf, fashion designer Patricia Field, graffiti artist Al Diaz, performance artist Jennifer Jazz, artist Lee Quiñones, writer/filmmaker Glenn O’Brien, and director Colleen Fitzgibbon.
Boom for Real is part Basquiat bio, part slice-of-life look at the Lower East Side of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. It shows the circumstances that conspired to turn Jean-Michel Basquiat from a street urchin spray painting graffiti on vacant buildings into one of the most recognizable artists of his time. But Basquiat really wasn’t an artist in the traditional sense of the word. As Jim Jarmusch describes him, Basquiat was “a true investigator of visual ideas, language, and music.”
Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basquiat is available on Digital HD.