Boom For Real The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basquiat

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basquiat
"A life like this is never tidy and neither is Driver's documentary." | Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Watch any documentary about a famous individual - especially an artist who died young - and you'll almost always find that it follows the same pattern: a rapid rise from obscurity, a glamorous period of stardom and a tragic fall. This is the way the public likes its celebrities to be packaged. It lets us root for the underdog, revel in the excitement of an imagined Babylon, then see the hero pay for the offence of getting to enjoy what we might rather desire for ourselves, with the further advantage that we can sigh over the beautiful corpse and project onto it any vision we want. Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basqiat refuses, like its subject, to play by the rules. It tells the latter part of the story only in passing; its focus is on the period of obscurity and Basquiat's gradual emergence from it. A time when the artist was already changing the way people saw the world but was living on the streets; when New York City knew his name but nobody knew who he was.

Rooting itself in this period, Sara Driver's film draws as much on the insights of Basquiat's ordinary friends, lovers and providers as on those of the few celebrities he got to know. Most prominent among the latter (outside the graffiti art scene)is Jim Jarmusch, who was at the time not in so very different a place himself. This is a film that acknowledges that talent, skill and money generally don't go together. It's a celebration of the Big Apple's artistic melting pot that recognises the contribution of people making art for nothing, never becoming known, supporting themselves with dead end jobs simply so that they could contribute to the conversation. Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz creating street art under the tag SAMO (over which they would inevitably come into conflict); Basquiat whose work got everybody talking but who depended on making big eyes to get a place to sleep.

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A life like this is never tidy and neither is Driver's documentary. Moving at speed, it reflects the impatience of the teenager, constantly switching from one thing to another. At its best it creates a synthesis from which new forms of understanding emerge; at its worst it is scattershot, uncoordinated. It does not require one to be familiar with the subject but, if one is to take much from it, it helps to be familiar with the lifestyle. One also needs a quick eye to pick up on all or most of the visual information that flies past during its 78 minute running time.

The other defining feature of this film is that Basquiat himself barely speaks. We hear stories about what he has said, some of them contradictory, some of them reflecting a sharp change in attitudes once he acquired the option of living in a different way - they prompt questions about how much of what we seem to be learning about him here is for real and just when he became aware of the value of performance. His voice is expressed through silent footage and photographs, those striking eyes declaring his mood - and, of course, through his at. In the absence of speech we come to depend on the written word and then on visual ideas which become further and further abstracted from it.

There is no past in Basquiat's teenage world, no mention of the tragedies of his childhood - but how many teenagers want to talk about all that? The music Driver incorporates here, the music the young artist loved, defines him as ahead of his time with all the awkwardness that brings. As compelling as remains to some, he always alienated others, and that complexity, along with the force of personality it stemmed from, is very much present in this film. Linear narrative, analysis, profound insight, not so much. Are they needed? Would he, then, have cared? What more needs to be said?

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2018
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Boom For Real The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basquiat packshot
A documentary exploring the pre-fame years of the celebrated American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and how New York City shaped his vision.

Director: Sara Driver

Year: 2017

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

New York 2017

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