By Barry Rubinow
Ronald Reagan was the new President. Rudy Giuliani was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York with a mandate to clean up the city. The yuppies were thriving with their upscale clothes and jobs. Gentrification was invading Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, driving up rents and prices at restaurants.
This was New York City in the 1980s, a world that arrived right AFTER the one vividly portrayed in “BOOM FOR REAL,” Sara Driver’s compelling new documentary, which opens in New York City and Los Angeles on May 11th.
Lower Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s was a treacherous, lawless place; so dangerous according to Driver, who was an artist and filmmaker in New York during that time, that “you had to be aware all the time of what was around you … . I cut my hair very short so I could look like a boy and maneuver on the streets” without being harassed. Many buildings were broken down and vacated.
“You saw stories constantly … these little human interactions and weird stuff going on because there were no laws … you were so tuned to the street and the people around you, it just gave you kind of these gifts that you don’t have anymore because people aren’t looking around. They’re looking at their phones … they’re not interacting with each other the way that we did.”
One of these ‘gifts’ was a young Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was in his late teens. He was a creature of the menacing New York City streets and over time has become almost a symbol of those turbulent, creative days. Basquiat is a total revelation in this film, even for people who are familiar with his life and later works.
The film originated when Driver was visiting her friend Alexis Adler, who revealed that she had about 60 works by Jean-Michel and about 150 photographs of him, all never seen before. Driver combines this treasure trove with amazing Super 8 footage of Jean-Michel hanging out, playing music, walking the streets with his paint can, almost casually creating his profound poetry/graffiti on the downtown walls of the broken city, under his controversial pen name Samo. We get an insider’s view of this other worldly, charismatic artist, who poet Rene Ricard called the “radiant child.”
Driver knew him “like I show him in the film, where you just see him around all the time … I remember we were shooting (Jim Jarmusch’s) “PERMANENT VACATION” and Jean was sleeping in a sleeping bag and we had to keep dragging him out of the way of the camera and we’d just sort of gently wake him up and say, Jean we’ve got to move you again now. And he’d kind of look at us and he’d go back to sleep. Sort of like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland.”
Jarmusch, Fred Brathwaite aka Fab Five Freddy, graffiti artist Lee Quinones, and other artists who were active during the time and knew Jean-Michel add color and depth to his story through their interviews in the film. They paint a picture of a time when “the definition of fame, success and ambition were very different than today — to be a penniless but a published poet was the height of success. President Reagan, the influx of money, AIDS and drugs changed everything after 1981.” They met in clubs like CBGB and the Mudd Club, experimenting with music, dance, sculpture, painting and how to live.
Even though the film takes place in a short time span, you see Basquiat’s work evolve and by the end of the film, the germination of his later, more well known work can be seen. “Jean-Michel Basquiat was not only an extraordinary and prolific artist, but he also broke open a very closed and elitist white art world. I like to think of him as a cross between Rimbaud and Mozart — a brilliant, poetic prankster whose creative impulses were on fire.”
That inner fire lights up the screen whenever he is on it. Through “BOOM FOR REAL,” the audience gets an insight into the quiet confidence that led him to believe that he definitely would be a famous and important artist. And his friends, associates, and fellow street dwellers knew also. And now we all can see it.
Barry Rubinow is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and editor who worked as Senior VP, Creative for The Documentary Channel
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