Film

A Documentary on Basquiat’s Teen Years Tracks a Star’s Early Ascent

Sara Driver’s new documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat wants to bring the young art star back down to earth, but often can’t help positioning hovering him above.

A teenage Jean-Michel Basquiat playing with his band (all photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures unless indicated otherwise)
A teenage Jean-Michel Basquiat playing with his band (all photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures unless indicated otherwise)

Everybody has a story about Jean-Michel Basquiat. It seems that if you lived in what was generally referred to as Downtown New York during a certain period of time, namely the decade between 1978 and 1988, you crossed paths with the Boy Genius. It could be randomly passing each other in the street or brushing up on the dance floor of the Mudd Club — the moment, with the soft glow of hindsight, was always uniquely profound. Collectors, scenesters, girlfriends, and other artists all have their own moments: he was the saint who touched lives, the bright star who burned out too quickly, a cautionary tale made hero. His life ended abruptly. Now that he’s gone it’s their story to tell.

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat retraces many of these stories, and in this way is not much different than Tamra Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010), Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), Jennifer Clement’s memoir Widow Basquiat (2010), or Phoebo Hoban’s biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (2015). They are all building a hagiography. How this latest documentary, which is directed by Sara Driver, separates itself from the rest is in its acknowledgement of the artist’s awareness: the mythology around Basquiat was self-constructed; the stories people tell are in some ways the ones he wanted them to tell.

A young Jean-Michel Basquiat
A young Jean-Michel Basquiat

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t invested in those same myths. As the title suggests, Boom for Real delves little into Basquiat’s childhood or his later meteoric rise. By focusing on his “late teenage years,” it attempts to capture him from around the time of the creation of SAMO, the infamous tag he created with Al Diaz to bomb the already-moneyed streets of Soho, to the beginning of his success through his work at the Times Square Show in June 1980. Graffiti was beginning to establish itself outside of the train yards, and the art industry was shifting at the dawn of a new decade. These were the years of his creation, when he was young and in control of the narrative — the story of rags before the riches.

By doing this, Driver attempts to remove him from the context of the art industry. Basquiat’s work now sells for record prices — one of his paintings sold at auction for $110.5 million last year — and appears on t-shirts and skateboards. He is more famous now than he was at the end of his life, his work existing outside of any specific place or time. Boom for Real is on a rehabilitation mission of sorts. It wants to bring Basquiat back down to earth.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in front of Jamie Canvas (photo © Robert Carrithers)
Jean-Michel Basquiat in front of Jamie Canvas (photo © Robert Carrithers)

Part of the film tries to do this by using graffiti as a frame of reference. It brings in figures like Fab Five Freddy and writers like Lee Quiñones to talk about its significance and Basquiat’s role within its history. But at the same time, it’s conflicted about the relationship: while he was clearly indebted to graffiti writers he was also, even more clearly, not a graffiti writer. The film doesn’t know what to do with this contradiction, and at times moves around it by relying on condescension. More than one talking head in the film describes the SAMO work as something you need to stop and consider, as if all graffiti writing was thoughtless and disposable. The film can’t help but position him hovering above.

A young Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging out with his friends
A young Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging out with his friends

Much of Boom for Real continues with this push-and-pull. It wants to position Basquiat as being rooted in a scene marked by hybridity, but can’t get past the shine of his singular greatness. It continues deracinating its roots. He was one of us, many in the film seem to be saying. This is where he came from, this is where he hung out, this is what he was like before the tragic conclusion. But he was also not one of us at all. He was above and beyond, a true star. We’re the ones he left behind, lucky enough to have been in his company, even for a short while — the stragglers left to tell the story.

But is there anything left to be communicate about Basquiat’s life? Every corner has been examined, every hidden detail exposed. We have his journals, interviews, writings, know his background and the intimate details of his relationships. We can move outward, talk about those around him. But the focus keeps moving back to the center. Overexposure has at once gone deeper and flattened out the story. What else is there for people to say?

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens today at theaters throughout the US, including the IFC Center in New York City and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.

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