Driver’s Seat

Sara Driver, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2017, color, 78 minutes. Photo: Alexis Adler.

PERHAPS A LAST LOOK at downtown New York’s inspired and inspiring, anarchic, penniless 1970s art scene, before attention shifted to the capitalist, power-shouldered 1980s, Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017) is an archival treasure trove. It is also an illuminating if narrowly cast portrait of the formative period in the twenty-seven-year life of an artist who absorbed and synthesized a visionary moment uptown and downtown to produce some of the most complicated and thrilling paintings of the second half of the twentieth century. Driver begins her story with Basquiat’s arrival on the garbage-strewn streets of the Lower East Side and postindustrial SoHo and ends with him selling a large painting to a major collector, Henry Geldzahler, who proclaimed it as good as early Rauschenberg. His career blasted off just as the scene itself dispersed—a victim of gentrification, drug burnout, and the realization by most people involved that they needed to earn a living.

When Boom for Real was screened at the New York Film Festival, the young artists who came to see a movie about Basquiat were most impressed by the collective energy of the downtown scene (one of its most important organizations was named CoLab, and it was open to just about anyone); the fusion of downtown No Wave music and film with Harlem graffiti artists, hip-hop, and break dancing; and the tacit refusal of professionalism by artists in every medium. The painter James Nares explains that if you wanted to play music or make a film, you just picked up a guitar or a camera and made something. Driver uses clips from Nares’s lyrical Super 8 films, most of them shot in the street, to suggest the Baudelairean beauty of crumbling neighborhoods, collaging them with fear-mongering TV footage of New York as a warzone that no sane person would want to visit let alone inhabit. Basquiat, like Jack Smith (seen here in a “commercial” for the legendary 1980 “Times Square Show”), made art out of detritus he found on the street. Nothing could be further from the elegant Minimalist and Conceptualist work exhibited and sold in the big SoHo galleries, which the writer Luc Sante refers to as “banks.”

Sara Driver, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2017, color, 78 minutes. Photo: Brock Adler.

Driver was part of this downtown ’70s world, and Boom for Real is, in the best sense, an inside job. Basquiat is a charismatic but silent figure in the film, captured in photos and on 16-mm and Super 8 just walking around, drawing his enigmatic SAMO graffiti, hanging out at clubs and in galleries. He is as elusive as friends describe him being in life, but he also has the physical grace and focused energy known as “star quality.” Old friends, acquaintances, collaborators, and roommates collectively sketch a five-year history that is both celebratory and elegiac. Among them are Lee Quiñones, master painter of subway exteriors and giant billboards; hip-hop musician Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy); the artist, writer, and filmmaker Coleen Fitzgibbon; and critic-curators Carlo McCormick and Glenn O’Brien. But it is left to Felice Rosser, who with her friend Alexis Adler let Basquiat crash on their couch, to speak directly about race. The uptown crowd takes it as a given that Basquiat is black, and that his work speaks to black history and experience, even though the world in which Basquiat was certain that he would become famous is white. “In a world where black people are not celebrated,” says Rosser, “he did it. He blew the roof off that sucker.”

In conjunction with the May 11 opening of Boom for Real, Anthology Film Archives is presenting a two-part series, “Sara Driver’s ‘Boom For Real’: The Annotated Edition.” Part one concludes on May 14 with a program of early videos and Super 8 films by the Irish filmmaker Vivienne Dick. In the gloriously shabby She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978), Pat Place and Lydia Lunch star as symbiotically attached roommates whose love-hate relationship can only end with a murder. Dick will also be at Anthology to show recent digital work (on May 13) that is no less vivid but far more controlled than her punk films. For part two, Driver asked artists who took part in her film to select movies they want to see right now. The films range from downtown Super 8 of the ’70s (Eric Mitchell’s 1979 Red Italy and Tina L’Hotsky’s 1977 Snake Woman) to powerful music-drenched features (Ahmed El Maanouni’s 1981 Trances, which follows the transcendent Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane, and Alan Greenberg’s 1981 The Land of Look Behind, a meditation on Rastafarianism and Jamaican pop music) to Derek Jarman’s vitriolic Jubilee (1978), featuring Brian Eno’s first film score. This second part of the series extends the downtown aesthetic of Boom for Real with films that Basquiat himself might have stolen from and taken to heart.

Boom for Real opens Friday, May 11, at the IFC Center in New York. “Sara Driver’s ‘Boom for Real’: The Annotated Edition” runs through May 29 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.