Published May 01, 2018When Jean-Michel Basquiat moved to Manhatten's Lower East Side in the late '70s, it was a creative hub. Homeless, but wanting to paint, he tagged poetic fragments around Soho as part of the graffiti duo SAMO. And when he wanted to put on an art show, he didn't wait for gallery space — he mounted one in a local clothing store.
Sara Driver's documentary Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat not only captures the artist in his pre-fame years, but also the creative era in which he existed, and helped to shape.
While Boom For Real uses archival footage and photographs, Basquiat's own voice is noticeably absent from the documentary. Instead, Driver relies on interviews with friends and acquaintances to assemble a collection of early influences. His friend Fab 5 Freddy talks about the bebop music they listened to, while his roommate and friend Alexis Adler says he would study her chemistry textbooks and the diagrams of atoms. The anecdotes are complemented by photos of Basquiat's artwork, suggesting early artistic influences without insisting on them.
By focusing on only a couple of years in Basquiat's life, the documentary feels suspended in time. While it tells the story of Basquiat selling his first postcard to Andy Warhol, it never even hints at the intimate friendship and artistic collaborations that would follow. It also contextualizes heroin moving into the clubs, such as Mudd Club and Club 57, without ever acknowledging that it would be the cause of Basquiat's sudden death at age 27.
In this way, Boom For Real doesn't entirely stand on its own, yet feels important as part of a larger conversation about the artist. By not describing the achievements that would come shortly after the film's timeline, Driver looks to demythologize the artist, portraying him as an energetic, relatable young man who was both brilliant and ambitious.
However, it also assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge on behalf of the audience, and those coming without it may walk away not fully grasping Basquiat's contributions to the art world, or the iconic figure he became. It modestly puts forward what is known about the man in earliest years as an artist, without ascribing importance to itself.
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