There are two stories being told in the documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The first: How 1970s New York, that city of urban decay, run-down apartment buildings, rampant crime and overwhelming scuzziness, spawned a hopeful, vibrant art scene. This was a time when painters like Kenny Scharf, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and gadflies like journalist Glenn O’Brien, all interviewed in the doc, were experimenting with their respective art forms and coming up with awe-inspiring new ways to spotlight both their work and their community.
At the same time, graffiti virtuoso Lee Quinones and savvy hustler Fab 5 Freddy (both also interviewed here) were spearheading their own burgeoning movement, one that soon brought Quinones’s subway-car graffiti into the limelight, along with rapping, deejaying, b-boy-dancing and what soon would be celebrated as the main components of hip-hop.
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The other story, the one that’s supposed to be this doc’s main focus, is not really as interesting. It tells of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ascent from spray-painting street vagrant to one of the icons of renegade New York art.
The way Sara Driver’s doc tells it, Basquiat was a wandering vagabond, always looking for a place to crash for the night, hopefully next to a warm female body. He initially tagged under the alias Samo (which he took from graffiti artist Al Diaz). Aspiring to artistic stardom, Basquiat often popped up in the most happening places, whether it was the legendary Mudd Club or the Canal Zone parties, where he once copped on video to being the mysterious Samo.
Boom makes Basquiat out to be an on-the-fringe Zelig-like character, attempting to get his foot into a bustling arts scene where the inner-city people were beginning to mingle with the downtown folk. At a time when the Big Apple seemed like Hell on Earth, these people were coming together for no other reason than to make some beautiful shit. Driver’s film presents a Basquiat who was always trying to find ways to express himself, whether it was tagging or coming up with collages or postcards or just using whatever domicile he frequented as his canvas. (We hear the story of how he once scribbled some crudeness on someone’s refrigerator door, which I’m sure goes for a lot of money now.) By the time he got to being a major, Warhol-approved Big Artist, he still wanted to pick the brains of bohos like Jarmusch, looking for inspiration even when the art world turned him into an on-the-rise wunderkind.
Boom makes the case that the scene Basquiat came from was more fascinating than Basquiat himself. Even though many of the artists, admirers and friends interviewed for this doc praise him and his gonzo genius, several of them suggest that he strived to be more of a rock star than a punk artist. Being the sponge that he was, Basquiat soaked up everything he witnessed and used it for his own celebrity gain. Meanwhile, much of the scene he wanted into has unfortunately been forgotten. It’s a shame, since he was by no means the only soul having fun and creating great art in a big city gone mad.