You won’t hear the young Basquiat say a word in Sara Driver’s new documentary. Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat circles the young artist in a nonlinear collage of found footage combined with reminiscences from the urban glitterati who knew him during his formative years. It’s as much an impressionistic snapshot (running a 78 brisk minutes) of the late artist’s friends and lovers as it is of a city regenerating itself from a period of decline. If you’re looking for a straightforward approach to Basquiat’s history or facts about his family, Tamra Davis’ 2010 film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a better bet.
"They're nice companion pieces with each other, they fill in holes for each other," Driver says in a phone interview. "I was doing something very different than what she did.” She remembers Adam Kurnitz, her editor saying, "'Sara, did you see Radiant Child?' and I said, 'Of course I did, but we're not doing that.'"
The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once compared Driver’s work to the surrealist painter Remedios Varo. “From the very beginning, the editors and I talked about keeping him as a ghost, and a memory,” Driver says, and the artist-to-artist comparison makes sense.
In this particular film, Driver’s dreamy ellipses and animated photographs come from an archive of Basquiat’s work that his ex-girlfriend Alexis Adler found in the apartment they shared from 1979 to 1980. That treasure trove was forgotten until Hurricane Sandy flooded Adler's New York neighborhood.
"The photographs Alexis took of him that are so playful, and so beautiful,” Driver says. These portraits, the filmmaker says, offer a glimpse not just "at his beginnings as an artist, but into our city in general.”
“Because of this curiosity people have about how he developed and found his way as an artist, Alexis's archive was the insight into that process,” Driver says.
New York City started changing after 1981. “All of a sudden, we had Ronald Reagan. We had something—we didn't know what it was called in the late '70s—which turned out to be AIDS. Suddenly crack was killing people faster than heroin was killing people. The real estate boom started to happen, the art boom started to happen, people's ambitions changed. It just felt like '81 was a good spot to end [the documentary] before he became famous, because his world changed once he entered the art world. And I wanted to show the world before that change happened.”
When Driver says “our city,” the collective voices includes artists like herself and Basquiat, and the filmmakers, musicians and writers who found that environment so nurturing at the time. She recorded relaxed interviews with a cross-section of New Yorkers in Boom for Real, witnesses to Basquiat's development who became prominent artists in their own right. Everyone in the film has an anecdote about him, from artist and rapper Fab 5 Freddy to Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field, to film director Jim Jarmusch and the late writer Glenn O’Brien—who was instrumental in mentoring and promoting Basquiat.
According to Driver, O’Brien, an editor at Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine, was a bridge for Basquiat to the worlds of fashion, film, literature and music. He, like Adler, was one of the few who saw right away that Basquiat’s work stood out. “Glen was very nurturing to Jean, and I think they had a very special relationship," Driver says.
In the doc, O’Brien underscores the thesis of Boom for Real without explaining away the mystique of Jean-Michel Basquiat: "I knew as soon as he put a crayon onto paper that he was something special."
'Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat' opens Friday, May 18 at Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Shattuck in Berkeley.