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.
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.
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.
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.
The suspects attempted to take a Basquiat artwork valued at $45,000 from Taglialatella Galleries but instead made off with a half-empty bottle of whiskey.
From music and architecture to comedy and horror, these films showcase Ukrainian culture and its long-held ethos of resistance.
Jo Sandman / TRACES opens with a reception for the artist on June 3 at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
The artists showcased in Archival Intimacies examine the colonial trauma’s impact on Asian Americans and search for ways to overcome it.
Eiffel inadvertently paints its protagonist not as a great man worthy of scrutiny or praise, but as the Elon Musk of his day.
Funding MFAs and all full-time graduate degrees, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans supports immigrants and the children of immigrants in the US.
The fire-resistant copy will be auctioned to raise funds for PEN America.
A new exhibition focuses on Hesse’s works on paper, and the way they demonstrate the role of drawing in the famed sculptor’s process.
Five shortlisted applicants will each receive a $25,000 production grant and participate in an online residency program with Eyebeam. The Grand Prix recipient will be awarded an additional $25,000.
Funded projects include an exhibition of contemporary and historical retablos and a residency that pairs glass artists with creators in other mediums.
Bonhams paused the sale of the rare garment, which was expected to fetch $1.2 million.
Now playing the Cannes Film Festival, the new film from the director of The Square embarks on a luxury cruise that goes to hell.