Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

The fashion industry is experiencing a retrospective glance back at 1980s street style and culture. This nostalgic reverie, if you call it that, plays out mostly in an reinterpretation of 80s street style evidenced in re-imaged track suits, big hoop earrings, an explosion of 80s–inspired sneakers, fanny packs, and a reinvention of glammed-up New Jack and Jill Swing.

Prior to urban culture becoming a part of the mainstream there were forces in play that gave seed and flower to a political and cultural movement that was the direct antithesis to white privilege. Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the epicenter of this shifting tide, putting his on stamp on the art world and what was to become hip-hop culture. Though his life was cut short by drugs and excessiveness, Basquiat’s impact on the art world urban culture is still felt thirty years after his untimely death. “Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” successfully examines Basquiat’s burgeoning talent before he took the art world by storm and New York City as the backdrop to Basquiat’s genius.

                                            Image courtesy of okplayer.com

As a 16-year old homeless youth Jean-Michel Basquiat’s New York City was a city that had been ripped apart by urban decay and blight and financial insecurity. White flight and the financial crisis of the late 1970s had left New York City bankrupt with few resources to buffer the growing tensions bubbling under the surface. Yet, this lack of resources served as a creative petri dish for a growing urban culture and style that would include rap music, changing fashion trends, and a new direction in art. Director Sara Driver brilliantly juxtaposing New York City’s declining infrastructure as an inspiring landscape for Basquiat’s nascent brilliance.

Images of Fab Five Freddy, Jim Jarmusch, and Lee Quinones courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Starting with Basquiat’s minor dalliance into graffiti art with the street tag SAMO, Driver’s “Boom For Real” follows Basquiat’s evolution from a talented street teen to a young artist who combines mixed media to take the art world by storm in the early 80s. Driver ingeniously weaves in interviews from friends and collaborative artists like Fab Five Freddy, Jim Jarmusch, Patricia Fields, Lee Quinones, Luc Sante, and others to paint, almost figuratively, a portrait of who Basquiat was and who he was going to become. Driver also brilliantly distilled how Basquiat moved between the worlds of urban culture, the downtown art and culture scenes, expertly absorbing and manipulating those worlds to his own best advantage. On the surface from this documentary, Driver almost concedes that Basquiat was an operator and hustler; yet, Basquiat exposed the insincere privileged art world of that time, where some artists were “making art on their parent’s dime.” Basquiat would have none of that, mainly because he was not that privileged. What he did do was demonstrate that there was relevance and beauty—though sometimes dystopian in nature—to what was going on in urban young people of color’s mind and experiences and that the larger world should take notice. Pat Fields, who carried some of Basquiat’s one-of-a-kind clothing in her store, said it best, “He came to conclusions based on his own philosophies. Most people just aimlessly walk around.”Basquiat represented the artist as an alienated, disenfranchised youth that had a strong point of view, making art based on their own terms. And the rest of the world be damned. This in your face, almost anachronistic approach to his art made Basquiat in odd character, but interesting to folks in NYC’s downtown culture scene. And once his art got the right focus and venue, it just took off.As one interview subject expanded toward the end of the documentary, “He did it. He gave it to them his way. He showed it’s possible!!””Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” is currently playing at the IFC Theater in NYC until May 23.

—William S. Gooch

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