Despite the specificity of its title, Boom for Real: The Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat concerns itself more with the anti-establishment New York City art scene of the late 1970s than the actual life or art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Using a wide array of grainy 16mm and low-grade archival video footage, director Sara Driver offers snapshots of the punk and no wave era during which music, film, poetry, and painting converged in an explosion of artistic output, and when Manhattan was at its grittiest. But even throughout its talking-head interviews, the film repeatedly loses track of Basquiat’s place within this world. Boom for Real creates a portrait of the environment that allowed for Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame but offers little in terms of new insights into either his personal or artistic life, only describing his unique aesthetic approach rather than investigating it on a deeper level.
Driver has wrangled an assortment of artists and historians to help contextualize the various cultural and economic factors that led to the emergence of Neo-Expressionism in New York. From hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and famed graffiti artist Lee Quiñones to Driver’s longtime partner, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a number of strong personalities who were intimately involved with Basquiat provide effervescent anecdotes and commentary throughout. But there’s little in these interviews that hasn’t already been covered by other films, and the bland manner in which these various interviews are presented runs counter to the purposefully abrasive and confrontational stylings of the movement it seeks to extol. There’s grit and grime to be found in the archival footage, but Boom for Real’s own structural approach to the era is clean, streamlined, and completely impersonal.
Boom for Real’s most glaring problem isn’t even its adherence to well-tread history. Had Driver concentrated more exclusively on any one of her numerous subjects—the graffiti and street art scenes, the birth of hip hop and break dancing, the Mudd Club music scene, the antagonism between the established SoHo art world and the rising young, urban artists of the time, or simply Basquiat himself—the film could have provided the in-depth coverage they each deserve. But at a meager 78 minutes, the documentary feels like a crash course on a sprawling, multifaceted art scene that leaves each of its topics, fascinating on their own, cursorily explored and loosely connected. By the time we get to the final shot of a rocket launching over a superimposed image of Basquiat’s face set to the on-the-nose needle drop of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” it seems clear that Driver is far more interested in celebrating this short-lived era of artistic invention than interrogating it.