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Jean-Michel Basquiat in Boom for Real.Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • Boom for Real
  • Directed by Sara Driver
  • Classification N/A
  • 78 minutes


3.5 out of 4 stars

“Boom for real” was a favourite phrase of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The late artist, musician, poet and DJ applied it to anything he was enthusiastic about, which makes it an apt title for a documentary about the streets, artists and haunts of late 1970s New York that shaped his artistic practice.

“He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him,” the influential critic and editor Glenn O’Brien wrote after his friend’s death in 1988 at age 27, “and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesized the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.”

The scene in director Sara Driver’s film is set through archival footage of a desolate, wrecking-ball-ready Lower East Side and the voice of former U.S. president Gerald Ford, who warns that he will deny New York City assistance in its dire financial situation. With occupancy hovering around 30 per cent, Lower Manhattan is empty, quiet and dangerous – a perfect environment for artists. The intensely curious Basquiat’s multifaceted artistic “investigations,” as one friend calls them, are inseparable from this era and milieu.

At 17, high-school dropout Basquiat was a couch-surfing gadfly who roamed the area creating poetic graffiti tags as “Samo,” initially in partnership with high-school friend Al Diaz. He had a knack for enigmatic, politically charged word play (his “Origin of Cotton” raises questions about slavery, for example).

Driver uses archival photos and footage to move Basquiat’s story forward chronologically, with personal reflections from the man’s peers and friends including O’Brien, Kenny Scharf, hip-hop trailblazer Fred Brathwaite (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy), stylist Patricia Field and Diego Cortez, who curated the era-defining “New York/New Wave” art show at P.S. 1 in Long Island.

Driver is no impartial observer, though – she and her long-time partner, Jim Jarmusch, were Basquiat’s friends and were large figures in the East Village art scene themselves. That presumably enables Driver access to insightful new material, such as the insights of Alexis Adler, who shares memories here of the pair’s East Village walk-up (Basquiat’s first fixed address) and his art – ephemera and personal photographs only recently made known to the public. The photographs depict a handsome young man with a sweet smile, surrounded by hand-painted objects ranging from radiators and clothes to football helmets (exploring the creative possibility of identity and performance), and even a refrigerator door that’s proof of Basquiat’s explosive creativity.

What’s admirable about the film is how Driver gives the cross-pollinating forces of music, media, fashion and art such concise, firsthand exploration. By the end of the doc, it’s almost possible to understand what, through the magic alchemy of talent, Basquiat metabolized into his art (even if the “how” will always be a mystery).

Boom for Real ends when Basquiat sells one of his first paintings and his career as an artist begins. It’s visualized with stock footage of a rocket launch. And that’s the essence of this film: A launch viewed from the perspective of those left below on Earth, none of them begrudging it, just left in a wake of bittersweet awe.

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