Sajae Elder screened Boom For Real and explored with the TIFF audience just how self-assured Jean-Michel Bosquiat was during his formative years.
While much has been chronicled of his life and the height of his success in the mid-1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s early career — and the things that grounded his work – was presented in full color at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Titled Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the film dives into his formative years anchored by the backdrop of a shifting New York City, with the young artist already full of the kind of self-assuredness that would come to mark his later years.
Director Sara Driver creates a deeply personal piece that brings viewers beyond the dynamic art the world knows him for, and closer to Jean-Michel — a teenage ingenue who spent plenty of time between the city’s streets and various couches across Manhattan.
Never short on charm, his way with women enabled his survival; landing him places to stay, love, learn and create all at once. Former roommates Felice Rosser and Alexis Adler help paint a fun but frenetic image of living with the teenage artist, who would eventually turn their various apartments into living art pieces as he continued to develop his preferred mediums and methods.
This isn’t the first time Basquiat’s story and legacy has been documented, and it won’t be the last — but what Driver’s film offers is context. Basquiat’s early career and coming of age came during a tipping point for converging cultures across the city — with the advent of hip-hop and punk and death of the downtown scene happening around him.
The film places interviews and anecdotes from those who knew him best alongside long-archived footage, including Basquiat’s very first television interview. It was here he would reveal his identity as the artist behind the SAMO tag… or at least one of them. Basquiat’s pre-fame years were already marked by the kind of fearless experimentation that would come to be his signature, made most obvious in his graffiti work under tag SAMO — a tag he once shared with artist Al Diaz that he would later claim as his alone. The duo’s poetic approach to tagging: leaving long, and often cryptic stanzas behind as opposed to the brighter illustrations that were typical of the art form would carry over into Basquiat’s other mediums throughout his career . What Boom revealed more than anything was a young Basquiat’s willingness to try any path his creativity lead him down, from custom clothes sold at Patricia Field to his post-punk band Gray.
Rosser recounts Basquiat telling her matter-of-factly that he was going to be famous — long before curator Diego Cortez told him he would be “bigger than Warhol” and before the Cortez-helmed exhibition that would launch his career.
If nothing else, Basquiat was sure of his own success — no matter the cost.
Sajae Elder is a Toronto-based writer, curator, and producer who talks music mostly on Twitter @JaeFiasco.