Few 20th-century artists have biographies that seem so ready-made for cinematic exploration as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Julian Schnabel notably dramatized this story of a late ’70s New York street kid’s improbable rise to prominence in the rarified atmosphere of Manhattan’s ritzy galleries in his 1996 film, Basquiat, and Tamara Davis more thoroughly charted the artist’s career in her 2010 documentary, The Radiant Child. But in the case of Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, filmmaker Sara Driver seems less concerned with recounting the details of Basquiat’s personal history than with documenting the turbulent vitality of the art scene that produced him. The result will enrapture audiences fascinated with the Warholian milieu of that specific time and place, while leaving the uninitiated questioning what all the name-checking’s about.
And there’s name-checking aplenty here, with Driver interviewing everyone from her longtime partner, Jim Jarmusch, to Frederick Braithwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) to iconic graffiti artist Lee Quiñones. It’s a veritable who’s-who of early ’80s New York scenesters, and Driver’s firm grasp of the disparate elements that contributed to the artistic vibrancy of the era is unquestionably due to her personal participation in its development. Through interview after interview, Driver contextualizes Basquiat’s navigation through the worlds of nascent hip-hop and punk, pop art and street art, with a deftness that belies her subject’s inherently ephemeral nature.
The greatest accomplishment in Boom for Real is that it goes against the traditional wisdom of letting that subject speak for himself, and that strategy proves to be both a virtue and a vice. In focusing on talking-head interviews (although no Talking Heads were included), Driver forces Basquiat’s work to speak for him through archival footage and period photography. This allows the viewer to chart the progression of the artist’s style, from his early SAMO days to the fabled Times Square ’80 show and the sale of Basquiat’s first major work to Met curator Henry Geldzhaler, who heralded the work as being “as good as early Raschenberg.” In the process, Basquiat’s artistic voice is emphasized over all else.
All else, that is, except for Driver’s portrait of a vanished New York. The director spends as much time delving into the ribald environs that influenced Basquiat as examining the artist himself, and one could be forgiven for tiring of tales of flophouses and the Mudd Club. While this context is critical with her film running a svelte 78 minutes, it would seem that Driver could have spent a little more time on Basquiat and a little less on the downtown real estate market. Yes, it’s essential to understand the way that heroin replaced cocaine in the Lower East Side party scene and would ultimately lead to Basquiat’s untimely death at age 27, but in a film this slight, is there any advantage to reiterating the societal surroundings when an audience interested in the subject likely already knows that story? Still, for a relatively slight doc, Boom for Real provides some degree of fresh insight into the formative years of an artist whose influence is difficult to overstate. Not Rated.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.