In the three decades since he died, at 27, of a heroin overdose, Jean-Michel Basquiat has come to be thought of in timeless terms. With every passing year, his paintings only rise in acclaim, in price, in the essential perception of where he stands in the pantheon of 20th century art. But it wasn’t always that way. In his time, Basquiat was a celebrated but intensely controversial figure. (Shortly after his death, the art critic Robert Hughes wrote a takedown in The New Republic, entitled “Requiem for a Featherweight,” that listed several contemporary artists whose paint brushes, said Hughes, Basquiat would not be worthy to clean.) There are still those who look at Basquiat’s art and don’t see the totemic poetry of it; they see words and blotches and scrawls. Yet if you’re a Basquiat believer, as I am, what’s extraordinary about his work is that it is composed of words and blotches and scrawls — but when you look at the paintings, they’re alive. They pulsate.
There are other painters whose work has this aspect (Jackson Pollock springs to mind), but in Basquiat’s case it’s more mysterious where the vibratory quality comes from, since he painted in such a deliberately abrasive way, with a stick-figure jaggedness that was, on the surface, the opposite of lyrical; it’s as if the paintings were screaming at you. The compact but highly resonant documentary “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” covers the period, during the late ’70s, when Basquiat was barely a painter yet — he was just a kid mucking around, jotting sketches on whatever surface was handy — but what’s amazing is that when you see a drawing of his from back then, which might be composed of just a few scraggly lines, it literally looks like a sketch done by a four-year-old, but it has the Basquiat quiver. The ecstatic vibration is there.
So is the thing that many of Basquiat’s later paintings express, which is the hidden horror and majesty of African-American experience; they’re like an X-ray of a wrecked soul that still has its life force. In “Boom for Real,” Basquiat is recalled by many of the people from the Lower East Side punk/art scene who knew him, like the author Luc Sante or the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. They describe the young Jean-Michel as a mysteriously drifting and charismatic ghost-hipster who spoke periodically about how he was going to be famous. When someone talks about himself that way, it tends to sound obnoxious and entitled (or seriously deluded), but in Basquiat’s case it was as if he was onto a reality that the world had yet to catch up to.
The movie doesn’t deal with — and, indeed, never mentions — Basquiat’s childhood years as a private-school kid, born and raised in Brooklyn, or how his family fell apart: When he was 13, his mother was committed to a mental institution, and he parted ways with his Haitian-born father a few years after that, landing on the streets of New York. “Boom for Real” takes off from the gutbucket reality of Jean-Michel as a 16-year-old homeless kid, living by his wits and wiles. He sometimes slept in the Earle and Albert Hotels, staying with “God knows who,” according to his graffiti partner, the artist Al Diaz. Basquiat had nothing, but he was already a world-class scene-maker, drawing on his downtrodden beauty and too-cool-for-school aura of angelic quietude.
He was surly but sweet, and wherever you went he would be there: at the Mudd Club and CBGB, at every art opening. Other kids played rap tunes, but Basquiat carried a boombox from which he blasted industrial-noise dance tracks, his way of announcing that he belonged to the future.
Much of this material has been covered in previous films, from Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” to the found-footage documentary “Downtown 81.” But Sara Driver, the director of “Boom for Real” (who was there at the time, as Jim Jarmusch’s early producer and romantic partner), creates an alluring and detailed portrait of how the downtown scene came together, springing up like weeds between the cracks of a broken New York, its poverty-row aesthetic infused with the energy of punk and the vivacity of hip-hop (before it was called that). The film covers Basquiat’s SAMO period, when he spray-painted graffiti alongside the driving underground voices of the time, Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy, who offer fascinating testimonials.
“Boom for Real” pinpoints the moment when the graffiti world pivoted, without knowing it, into the art world. It was that night in 1978 when Quiñones painted his Howard the Duck mural on a public-school handball wall. Yet Basquiat, in a sense, was already ahead of him. In the photographs and home-movie footage we see, the teenage Jean-Michel (referred to, by almost everyone here, as “Jean”) carried the aura of a 30-year-old. The images he drew were childlike, but his use of words as artistic building blocks — a key dimension of the Basquiat aesthetic — was not, and he did it with a fusion of joy and solemnity, a reverence he applied even when he was writing the words “grape jelly” on a refrigerator…with grape jelly. He treated the world, and everything in it, as his canvas.
Inevitably, “Boom for Real” edges toward Basquiat’s moment of fame. He was featured in a magazine article along with Quiñones, who was thrilled at the prospect — unlike Basquiat, who according to Quiñones dismissed it by saying “it’s just one article.” But then, in June 1980, Jean-Michel joined in the Times Square Show, a radical collective of nearly a hundred downtown artists held in an abandoned building on 7th Ave. and 41st St. He contributed a solitary wall painting that was singled out by critics, at which point the curator Henry Geldzahler paid a visit to Basquiat’s studio and purchased his first canvas for $500. (Geldzahler told a friend that he thought the painting was the equal of a Rauschenberg.) With no formal training, Basquiat was off and running, from the streets to the galleries. And “Boom for Real” captures why: He art was an eruption, fashioned by an aristocrat of the untamed.