Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat Review
Sara Driver’s short but insightful documentary, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, looks back on the key formative years of the enigmatic American painter which helped shape the artistic vision that made him one of the 20th century’s most important artists. Only last year one of his works sold for $110.5 million (£85m) to become the most expensive painting sold by an American artist at an auction, and the documentary follows on from the Boom For Real exhibition held at The Barbican in London last year, the first time such a wide collection of Basquiat’s work had been put on display in the UK.
Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27, and yet for an artist who never achieved his full potential the amount of work he completed in such a short space of time is quite staggering. Boom For Real concentrates on a period in the late 70s before his meteoric rise into the New York art scene at a time when graffiti inspired art, hip-hop culture and punk were starting to emerge.
Driver sets the scene in the Lower East Side of New York at a time when the district had run into ruin. Even President Ford was unprepared to offer financial assistance and through the use of archived footage and photographic stills we get a tangible sense of how desolate and dangerous the area had become. But there was also a sense of community still thriving amongst the younger generation and, as is so often the case, creativity thrives in the ugliest of circumstances.
Guided by early hip-hop luminary Fab Five Freddy and legendary graffiti artist Lee Quiñones we hear how Basquiat first gained notoriety under his SAMO tag. Compared to Quiñones and those who begun the subway graffiti movement it never matched the same vibrant aesthetic but his crude style and politically charged wordplay critiqued the upstate New York art world and society as a whole.
Driver herself was a friend of Basquiat during this period and we hear from her partner Jim Jarmusch – also an acquaintance of the self-taught artist – who recalls elements of his personality. Old friends and lovers remember putting Basquiat up on their sofa and the open relationships they shared together. Others mention the experimental pieces of work he would construct, while we see scrawled notes and early ideas that demonstrate the direction his art would begin to take.
What works so well is the energy Driver evokes of a culture that allowed a black artist like Basquiat to thrive before gate crashing the white dominated New York art world. The DIY mentality that allowed both hip-hop culture and punk to become so dominant – even joining forces in underground spaces like the Mudd Club and Club 57 – sears through Basquiat’s childlike artwork and is underpinned with an examination of race and the power structures in American society.
Boom for Real also touches on the shift from cocaine to heroin within the arts scene as the inspirational drug of choice, which would go on to claim the life of Basquiat less than a decade later. Driver stops short of delving into the excesses that no doubt came with fame and money (along with a famous friendship with Andy Warhol) that would change his life, stopping just as Basquiat’s first painting is sold, the warm bassline of Suicide’s beautiful Dream Baby Dream kicking in and signifying an artist about to enter a plain few artists ever get to experience.