Film Review: BOOM, FOR REAL: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat 2018 Dir. Sara Driver
By Belle McIntyre
There has been much written and filmed about the meteoric rise and tragically premature fall of the 1980’s art star. The charming, charismatic young artist was catnip to nearly everyone he met and was indulged in the way that a ‘radiant child’ would have been. His irrepressible creativity was galvanic and multi-disciplinary and opened doors to others of his ilk who were incubating in the gritty lower east side of the late 70’s, including the director and her partner, Jim Jarmusch. Those were turbulent, messy times in New York, but fertile for artists and musicians who were mostly poor, often minority, and wildly creative.
Grafitti had bloomed all over the subway cars and building walls in the seedier neighborhoods.
That it had reached a high level of artistry was undeniable in spite of the fact that the ‘powers that be’ regarded it as a blight and began a war against it. Young black musicians without resources began creating new sounds using turntables with vinyl in completely original ways. All of this was based on necessity being the mother of invention and we witnessed the birth of hip hop. All of these trends were unmissable to everyone, even those who had no interest. The lower east side was crumbling and vaguely anarchic but vibrant and fecund with possibility from organic new sources.
I would have to say that this film is almost as much about the ecosystem which nurtured the teenage Basquiat. He did not have a place of his own for most of this period and was often in need of a place to crash. Driver interviews those who took in the vagabond Jean with his fanciful hairstyles, who seemed to inspire the nurturing instinct in the mostly women who knew him well in those days. Also interviewed are the artists and musicians with whom he interacted and were his friends. Lee Quiñones, Kenny Scarf, Fab 5 Freddy, Nan Goldin, Luc Sante, Glen O’Brien and Alex Adler give affectionate personal stories and revealing insights and provide context into the man and the times.
So, what sets this film apart from the others is the focus on the personal and formative period of this short life. Artistically it ends with the Times Square Show in 1980, a group show of 100 unknown artists in an abandoned building in Times Square. Basquiat had submitted one of his first paintings on canvas. This changed everything. The work was no longer stealth or renegade. Henry Geldzhaher, the influential curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum noticed his work and after a studio visit bought his first painting which he brought home and hung between a Rauschenberg and a Jasper Johns. He wrote eloquently about the work, thoroughly validating it. The rest is history. He became an art superstar anointed by Geldzahler and Andy Warhol. Seven years later, age 27, in 1988 he is dead from an overdose. In 2017 a Basquiat painting was sold at auction for $110 million breaking records for the work of an American artist.
Sara Driver has wisely chosen to make a film based on what she knows. She was there and it feels authentic in a way that might not be possible otherwise. This is personal and evocative and real. It is very insider stuff and not at all hagiographical. It brings a lot of trends which are now mainstream into context by revealing and interrogating the cultural atmosphere which was the source of so much vibrant African-American art and music. Basquiat was truly a sonic boom for real.