'Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat': Film Review | TIFF 2017

A treasure for those interested in Downtown New York's heyday and a demythologized Basquiat.

Sara Driver, too long absent from the directing chair, returns with a transporting doc about the early career of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the environment where he flourished.

One of the most transporting depictions of the Downtown New York scene (in a field crowded with docs, memoirs and fictions — some by artists who weren't alive at the time), Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat more than does justice to its acknowledged subject, partly by refusing to divorce him from his context. Conveying his personal magnetism, eccentricity and non-stop creativity without romanticizing him, the doc also serves as another chapter in the ongoing effort to rescue Basquiat from his own hype. It makes an excellent counterpoint to Tamra Davis' 2010 Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which focused on his years in the spotlight, and to Julian Schnabel's biopic. Of the three films, one guesses that many who knew the man will appreciate this one the most.

True to its name, the film ignores its subject's family and childhood, treating him like an alien creature who materialized on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s and began experimenting on the more receptive humans around him. Humans like Driver herself, who was enjoying a romantic walk with Jim Jarmusch when, as Jarmusch tells it, Basquiat ran up out of nowhere, said something cryptic, and walked away, only to circle the block and come back with a flower for Driver.

Boldness with women (regardless of their pre-existing romantic relationships) helped the penniless Basquiat. The film spends enjoyable time with Felice Rosser and Alexis Adler, who often gave the homeless kid a place to sleep. After one too many noisy late-night arrivals, Rosser revoked his couch-surfing privileges. Later, Adler would find the first apartment Basquiat was able to call his own; they were roommates with benefits, and he turned everything from the bathroom door to the refrigerator into art works.

Those domestic inventions pointed the way to the paintings that would later make him famous, but Boom for Real focuses more on Basquiat's early street art. Driver does an excellent job of showing how New York's exploding graffiti culture was and wasn't related to what Basquiat did: how the weirdly poetic texts he wrote on walls alongside the "SAMO" tag were different from the tags and illustrations adorning subway cars; how the attention being paid to hip-hop culture created possibilities for this conceptualist-tagger to exploit. Hip-hop authority Fab Five Freddy spins much of this tale, along with muralist Lee Quiñones and Al Diaz, who helped popularize the SAMO tag before Basquiat claimed it as solely his own.

While graffiti artists were at work in the Bronx and on handball courts, Basquiat targeted SoHo, where an established art scene sat within walking distance of fringe-art squalor. Luc Sante recalls how "the galleries just seemed like ... banks, or something," and young artists had to make their own venues. Driver talks about efforts like Colab, the arts collective that mounted what would now be called pop-ups. Their "Batman Show" caught Basquiat's attention; their 1980 "Times Square Show" gave him a place to be seen by established gallery directors. The following year, Diego Cortez — who had already told Basquiat "you're going to be as big as Andy Warhol" — organized a MoMA PS1 exhibition called New York/New Wave, which launched Basquiat's commercial career.

But before she gets to that point, Driver revels in the anarchic creativity that surrounded Basquiat in a Manhattan that could still be inhabited by the poor. He painted clothes for Patricia Field; started an avant-garde band with Michael Holman; was on public-access TV with Glenn O'Brien; and partied with everyone at Mudd Club and its sillier cousin, Club 57. This was before Reagan, before AIDS — and before crack, though, in an ickily atmospheric interlude, Driver acknowledges the other drugs that both fueled the scene's all-night lifestyle (cocaine) and offered aspiring art legends a built-in mythology (heroin).

The latter drug would, of course, eventually kill Jean-Michel Basquiat. Thankfully, chronicling that downfall is not Driver's job. Fame, money and addiction are a world away from Boom for Real, a movie that understands how, even for an artist with more ambition and more willingness to play the game than most of his peers, creativity can still be its own reward.

Production companies: Hells Kitten Productions, Faliro House, Le Pacte, Leopardo Filmes, Bunny Lake Films
Director: Sara Driver
Producers: Rachel Dengiz, Sara Driver
Executive producers: Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Jean Labadie, Paulo Branco
Director of photography: Adam Benn
Editor: Adam Kurnitz
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: The Match Factory

78 minutes