Review: ‘Boom for Real’ Is a Beguiling Look at a Teenage Basquiat

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A review by Glenn Kenny for the New York Times.

A new film from the director Sara Driver is an unequivocal cause for celebration. Ms. Driver’s last feature, “When Pigs Fly,” was made over two decades ago. She does not direct all that often, instead involving herself behind the scenes in the work of Jim Jarmusch, also her partner in life.

But the short filmography of this New York-based artist is more distinctive than the aggregated accomplishments of many who are more prolific. Consider Ms. Driver’s 1981 Paul Bowles adaptation, “You Are Not I,” long thought lost and rediscovered several years ago. This tale of madness does an intense double Dutch between art and genre modes, without ever breaking an aesthetic sweat.

That Ms. Driver’s new picture, “Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” is a documentary ought not to dissuade anyone hungry for this filmmaker’s voice. While, in many respects, it is conventional in form, alternating archival footage from the late 1970s and early ’80s with newly shot interviews, the movie has a momentum (aided by an exemplary soundtrack of songs from the era) and a rare interrogatory spirit.

As the film’s title announces, Ms. Driver’s subject is Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who died in 1988at 27, yet who still produced a galvanic body of work. The movie shows that he first attracted notice for his street art, in the persona of “Samo.” (As a collaborator of his points out, this is a contraction of “same old,” as in “same old” you know what.) But Basquiat was not a graffiti artist as such, and the documentary does not cast his experiments in multidisciplinary art as a careerist strategy (this in spite of the fact that his personal charm made him a natural self-promoter). Rather, it depicts the young Basquiat interacting with a specific environment and making it his laboratory.

That environment is, of course, the somewhat desolate, dangerous Lower East Side of the late ’70s. There have been an awful lot of recent documentaries lauding the glories of this particular “old” New York, but Ms. Driver’s evocation of it is smart and seductive without being reductively nostalgic. Both she and Mr. Jarmusch, as well as their friend the writer Luc Sante, were beginning their careers at this time, and onscreen, Mr. Sante and Mr. Jarmusch contribute observations both amusing and evocative.

Ms. Driver also interviews Basquiat’s friends, lovers and collaborators, and while she shows a good deal of archival footage of the man himself — beautiful, with a lot of droll hairstyles — she withholds one thing: You never hear his voice. Basquiat’s presence in the film is more spectral as a result. This is Ms. Driver’s way of acknowledging loss. Basquiat’s art — raw, inventive, socially engaged — continues to speak to us even as the artist himself cannot.

Near the end of the movie, one of Basquiat’s friends refers to him as “a true investigator.” In Ms. Driver, the artist finds a kindred spirit, a fellow investigator who pays him proper and enthralling tribute.

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