In 1978, New York City’s Lower East Side was as unrecognizable from today as a war zone. Amid rampant urban blight, slumlords and gangland, a now-infamous community of progressive artists flourished and flamed. They must have known they were changing the world. At least one of them, an 18-year-old charismatic named Jean-Michel Basquiat, definitely knew it.
Boom for Real is a bright and lively, intimate and detailed account of Basquiat’s arrival and formative years as a fearless young adult who came of age along with the city he came to fairly embody. “For forward-thinking people,” curator Diego Cortez says at one point in the film, “the age of the white male was already over.”
Cultural historian of all things Lower East Side and street art, first-hand witness and willing participant, writer Carlo McCormick makes frequent appearances in the film, providing the broader context of art and what came after. At one point he keenly reminds the audience that he can’t really overstate “the impact that graffiti had on the consciousness of New York City.” It was a near-universal chorus of individual gestures of self-expression, blows against anonymity, and messy, visceral, direct engagement with absolutely anyone at all.
The movie is almost not really about Basquiat but almost more so about a deep dive into the time and place that shaped him, and that he in turn helped define. It was a decade of rebellious incursions into the art world, the union of downtown punks and Harlem’s rising stars of hip-hop, of political activism and subversion of paradigms as a veritable vocation. No one had money, no one had anything but one another and a shared sense of endless opportunity among the ruins of the city. When all is lost, everything becomes possible.
That’s the context that, for example, gave rise to the famous SAMO tag (which was a brief of Same Old Shit). And how it all went down also gives the first insight into Basquiat’s single-minded focus on attaining success as an artist. At first a collaboration with celebrated graffiti writer Al Diaz, SAMO was a suddenly ubiquitous presence (no one knew who “he” was) all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. The short texts were more axiomatic than most tags, as much urban poetry as street art.
Then the Village Voice did a story on SAMO, whereupon Basquiat sort of hijacked the name as a solo act and took it from there. Diaz wasn’t happy, but to be fair, Basquiat alone expanded the voice of the still-anonymous SAMO to include his trademark font and increasingly lengthy, poetic and political messages. Until a big reveal for the cameras and a live audience, not even his closest friends seemed to realize Basquiat was SAMO.
One of the chief joys of the film is the panoply of those friends interviewed on camera, which when paired with friend and Basquiat confidant Alexis Adler’s epic archive of contemporaneous photographs, works and ephemera weave a profoundly lively and evocative sense of the texture of the young man’s daily life. Absolutely a teenager, yet in the photos you can already see the presence, the gravitas and the confidence — the celestial ambition — that comes from the certainty that you are destined for greatness. He was a couch-surfing, spotlight-hogging, media-savvy, incessantly working, photogenic genius with a gift for improvisation and a knack for performance and public creativity. Of course he was in a band. In 1978 he was 18 years old. In 1988 he died. Sighs BOMB Magazine’s Mary-Ann Monforton, “Everyone was crazy about him.”
Sara Driver has in many ways crafted the perfect documentary film, presenting a new story about a subject you might think you already know everything about. Better than fresh, it’s also surprising. It could be called “Becoming Basquiat,” but it could also be called “NYC in the Time of Basquiat” because as the movie illustrates, if circa 1980 New York were a person, it would be him. He was and is emblematic of an era, but one that would come to an end soon enough. The era of AIDS and Wall Street greed was on the horizon. And so was the era of Basquiat’s innocence.
In 1980 Art in America covered SAMO’s contribution to the legendary Times Square Show — a 24/7, monthlong takeover of a derelict midtown building that saw some 75 artists doing breakout, transgressive projects, and of which Basquiat was the star. Diego Cortez put him in “New York New Wave” in 1981, Henry Geldzahler bought his first-ever real painting on canvas, called him a young Rauschenberg, and that was that. Everyone could only watch as Jean became Basquiat right before their eyes.
Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat opens Friday, May 11, at the Nuart.