The title of the movie is Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and while it’s not a complete misnomer, Sara Driver’s relatively lighthearted documentary spends much more of its runtime on setting than subject. This certainly isn’t a problem, as the arts districts of 70s and 80s New York City is as cinematic a locale as they come, but the broad, non-intrusive nature of the documentary makes one wonder just who this film is for.
What I mean is that, as a person only lightly familiar with the life and work of Basquiat, the film served mostly as an advertisement to go check his stuff out. It doesn’t offer much by way of insight into who he was or why his work is so important beyond the assertions of his peers that this was indeed the case. Furthermore, I can imagine that fans of Basquiat will find nothing new here to merit rushing out to the theater. The value for both fans and newbies will likely be in seeing images from the era preserved and writ large.
With gloriously grimy b-roll from CBGB, Mudd Club, and the post-white flight Lower East Side, Driver’s film effectively captures the feeling that the long list of talking heads assert was ubiquitous at the time. Namely that despite living in an area filled with crime, poverty, and social discontent, the thrill of courting danger, mixed with the desire to make a statement, fueled the artistic passions of the many greats who emerged from this scene. Most notable of them all was the titular Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The art crowd, now older, grayer, and doughier around the middle, all wistfully speak of the many ways that Basquiat was bound for stardom. All agree that despite his allergic rejection to stability and responsibility, he was always a joy to be around. Sure, he liked doing drugs and would bed anyone with a functioning set of lungs, but what he was doing with his art was so next-level that people were tripping over themselves to be associated with him.
We’re given a small sampling of his visual work (his music is hinted at, but never displayed), and shown how, even before making it big, his technical skills and artistic voice had consistently grown. So odd that the film focuses only on his late teenage years, a time which, at least as far as his art was concerned, not much happened. The film ends on his very first sale. Five hundred dollars paid to him under a bridge by a MOMA curator… and the rest is history, I guess. But it’s those next seven years where a more interesting movie would be found. The period from 1981 to 1988 are when his meteoric rise occurred; where his art grew into what we recognize today as a Basquiat piece; where his bohemian lifestyle ended in a fatal heroin overdose. All we get from his late teenage years is that he did indeed exist, and during that time he made some art. I want more!
So I went out and got more.
In doing some research I discovered that just last year, a painting of his sold for $110.5 million dollars at auction – the largest price ever paid for the work of an American artist, and the sixth largest price ever paid for a piece of art on the whole. It’s a wonderful piece of work, too, and I’d love to know more about it, but that’s on me to do. Boom for Real is a perfectly entertaining film, which accurately captures one of the most deliciously avant-garde settings in American history, but with every moment of “oh, cool” comes a missed opportunity to dig deeper. Then again, I fell down a multi-hour Basquiat wikihole immediately upon finishing the film, so I’ve got to give the filmmakers credit for piquing my interest.
Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens at the Ritz Bourse today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.