You’d have to go back to Bloomsbury to find another set as insular, self-promoting, self-destructive, imitated, parodied, publicized, and at last mythologized as the crowd that hung around New York’s East Village in the late 1970s. All things in proportion, of course. Compared with their English counterparts, the Alphabet City group scored far lower in investment income, Cambridge certification, and connections to the gentry, and far higher in ethnic diversity, assertive queerness, and heroin use. There were also a lot more of them—if not swarms, then a shifting mass who earned their credentials by being young and showing up, and who believed that the right to be called an artist (or at least artistic) was best enjoyed without prior mastery of a skill. That said, democratic upstarts, too, can be snobs. Speaking some 40 years later, one of the memorialists in Sara Driver’s documentary Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat can still praise the scene’s favorite dance hangout, the Mudd Club, with blinkered sincerity: “Everybody who was anybody was there.”
As one of those long-ago anybodies, and a respected film-world somebody today, Driver brings to Boom for Real a quality that’s both unexpected for this topic and invaluable: balance. On one side, she’s visceral and immediate, without falling into the trap of autobiography. She knows people who can describe for her the smells and sounds of the Lower East Side in its 1970s dereliction (rank, skunky, eerily quiet) and recall the details of what they ate, where they found their clothes, and how the pace of life changed throughout the days and nights, from idling to making up projects to partying. She also knows how to get her hands on amazing archival images of her title character, from around 1978 (when the 17-year-old Basquiat was going around with Al Diaz, spraying “SAMO”-tagged messages on buildings and infrastructure), to 1980–81, when Basquiat first made paintings that were meant to hang on a wall rather than cover it. Slender, beautiful, and apparently all business, the artist-in-development is more than the subject of Boom for Real; he’s the film’s chief presence.
And yet he’s the chief absence as well, since the footage of him is silent and ghostly. That’s a clue to the other side of Driver’s balance. She loves Basquiat and his milieu in themselves, but she also sees them as the product of outside forces: from the white flight and economic dislocation that had ripped through broad swaths of New York (as mentioned in President Ford’s so-called “drop dead” speech in 1975, excerpted on the soundtrack) to the graffiti art, rap music, and break dancing that flourished in the Bronx and were imported to Lower Manhattan by Fred Brathwaite, the Sol Hurok of hip-hop culture. Brathwaite was instructive even for Basquiat, whom he tutored in bebop history. (At the time, Basquiat was devoting himself to playing clarinet in a noise band, when not slathering paint over any object within reach.) But, more generally, Brathwaite helped diversify a downtown scene that had intuited that, as curator Diego Cortez tells Driver, “the Age of the White Male was already over.”
Enter the master graffiti artist Lee Quiñones. Interviewed by Driver in his present-day studio and seen in footage from Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 feature Wild Style, Quiñones functions in Boom for Real as a kind of alternate-universe figure: the man Basquiat might have become if he hadn’t made it big in the high-end galleries and museums but survived into a productive middle age. Quiñones comes before the camera with a calm and thoughtful demeanor: by any reasonable standard a successful painter of historic significance, confident of his merit, proudly Nuyorican, and above all alive. But that wasn’t what Basquiat wanted, any more than he wanted to make a name by painting subway cars. (He learned from the graffiti artists, but despite his “SAMO” period he never really was one himself.) As one after another of Driver’s subjects testify, Basquiat was determined to achieve greatness, with all its benefits.