Where in the world is Jean-Michel Basquiat? That was the question I was asking while watching Boom For Real: The Late Teen Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. That’s a mouthful of a title. Maybe I was unfairly expecting Sara Driver to conjure him from the dead. But there’s enough archive footage of him in this documentary. Besides, this is mostly an movie interviewing those who were lucky enough to be around him when he was alive. And these people remind us that his art had an intelligence behind it.
It takes a village to foster a person’s art and the same is true for Basquiat’s trajectory. Simplistic renditions of his narrative interprets him as a young man ingratiating himself into a white art world. However, Driver’s film tells a more complex story. She shows that he wasn’t the only black artist in New York City’s Lower East Side. He actually lived with quite a few black female artists. These women recounted NYC during the Carter years, them having the same energy as he must have.
Basquiat as an artist was growing up during hip hop’s infancy. Part of the reason this movie passes is because it will engender jealousy. I assume most of this film’s audience wasn’t fortunate enough to experience that epoch. There’s a lot more archive footage here with him and/or artists like him tagging walls. There’s an implicit theme of him negotiating his blackness. And having to follow or rebel against an art movement that is inherent black. The doc doesn’t fully explore that theme but its little moments here are sufficient.
It’s the same story, really. Here we have artists in their middle age remembering their pasts as young upstarts trying to encapsulate their generations’ woes. Basquiat, as a member of a street art movement, follows 20th century artists questioning art placement. While watching these interview subjects it becomes apparent that middle age is inherently bourgeois. It’s hard to imagine these guys as bohemians. Basquiat as an artist sadly left us too soon. However, he’ll never have to justify his authenticity as these artists have to.
Context is, again, key here as the interview subjects recount the drug epidemic ravaging downtown. Heroin and cocaine enter the narrative, drugs that lay people also used as much as the artists did. Heroin, specifically, still kills artists decades after Basquiat passed away. The documentary pairs the talking heads’ voice overs with iconic archive footage of the short films that he was in. This is one of the movie’s weaker moments. Audiences of nostalgic movies always anticipate scenes depicting the downturn but it seems abrupt in this film.
Another of the film’s aims is to show Basquiat and his contemporaries’ interdisciplinary ethos. He was both a visual and a musical artist, dabbling in both before choosing to immerse himself in the former. He also ran within the same circles in both industries. However, depicting these incestuous groups can also come off as star service. For God’s sake Fab Five Freddy is talking about Basquiat’s rocky friendship with Andy Warhol. Despite of this the film us a clearer picture of an era and these artists reaching forward.