Toronto Review: Boom For Real

From the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most influential artists of the 1980s, having catapulted to a meteoric level of fame. His abstract paintings comment on the disparities between people of different racial and social classes, and the individual’s role within society. But just a few short years before his first major exhibition, Basquiat was a homeless teenager who had run away from home, and who was living on the streets of Lower East Side Manhattan.

Boom for Real is subtitled “The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” suggesting that this documentary is an inside look at the formative years of one of the 20th century’s most famous artists. It is and is not.

Boom for Real attempts to reconstruct the social scene, cultural movements, and friendships that would serve as early inspiration for Basquiat’s paintings. Director Sara Driver depicts the Lower East Side as it was for residents like Basquiat in the 1970s: suffering the effects of white flight, filled with crime and drug use, and mostly abandoned. Those who were raised in the Lower East Side at the time were dubbed the “no future” generation, as many lost hope and were filled with a sense of nihilism.

Yet a unique group of artists was forged from this neighborhood, all of whom began to experiment with rejecting what they saw as an elitist art gallery system. The hip hop scene converged with the punk scene. Conceptual art pieces could be made from abandoned trash throughout the streets. Graffiti moved beyond writing on subway trains and onto city walls, and was slowly being recognized as its own art form. All of this would coalesce into a truly interdisciplinary art scene, as artists no longer felt confined to a single medium.

Basquiat, who began as a graffiti artist, would extend into experiments in all the different types of mediums he encountered in the chaotic downtown New York artistic community. He played in a band, painted clothing for local shops, wrote poetry on walls, or in what is now considered his signature style, would combine figurative drawing with text. He died at the age of 27, within seven years of selling his first painting. Today, Basquiat is one of the world's highest selling artists.

The film has little archival footage of Basquiat’s early years, relying more on interviews with people who knew the young artist in his early years: from contemporaries, rivals, people he had wronged, people he had loved, who all came from this intimate community of artists.

Boom for Real tells the story of the Lower East Side through the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Driver reveals to be the culmination of the all the creative and political movements that shaped the 1980s. One of Basquiat’s friends featured in the film remarks that when she sees his art in museums, she is standing in front of the “representation of an era.” She’s not wrong. While viewers won’t leave Boom for Real with a sense of intimacy with Basquiat, the film instead reveals the context that created the genius.

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