Filmmaker Sara Driver (You Are Not I, When Pigs Fly) was herself a major player in the New York City art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s and now finds herself the latest in a growing list of directors who have tackled some aspect of the life and career of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Unlike Julian Schnabel’s feature film Basquiat or the Tamra Davis documentary The Radiant Child, Driver’s Boom for Real covers his late teenage years leading right up to the moment when he moved from promising young artist to in-demand art legend.
Although the works of Andy Warhol were already considered passé, many of the prominent artist who were Basquiat’s peers still saw Warhol as a hero and role model in their pursuit to redefine art by avoiding fixed definitions completely. Basquiat and many others approached painting and drawing the same way they did making music, films, fashion, or performance art. They borrowed from the world around them, were inspired by what moved them and found ways to blend those elements into their own work. Director Driver understands this world intimately because she witnessed it firsthand by being a part of it, so she knows the players in Basquiat’s life as well as those who were simply his good friends who frequently let him crash on their couches.
Focused primarily on the isolated, largely empty streets of lower Manhattan (specifically the Mudd Club and Club 57, where drugs and theme nights ruled the day), the movie moves us through Basquiat’s and other artists’ lives as graffiti artists (Basquiat first gained anonymous fame as a clever tagger named SAMO); more traditional painters whose canvasses were anything but traditional; musicians, and any other creative outlet that was available to them on such limited budgets. Enlightening interviews are featured with friends and colleagues like hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy, filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and James Nare, graffiti legend Lee Quiñones, journalists who covered the scene at the time, and collector Alexis Adler.
Boom for Real may be a look at Basquiat in his formative years, but it’s as much about the scene, its wildly creative participants and the places they gravitated toward to socialize, sleep, have sex and make art in ways that were groundbreaking and barrier burning. The film’s biggest downside is that the one voice we never really hear from is Basquiat himself, which may be by design, but it feels strange having a collection of others talk about him, rather than allowing the artist to speak for himself via archival footage of the time period. Still, the time and place is so miraculously captured that it feels like you’re looking at life on another planet—one where while punk-rock kids moved in the same circles as hip-hop performers, and the resulting art is a ragged and fully representational of those who made it.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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