Two new documentaries take a look at downtown New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, each through the eyes of a different street artist. Boom For Real, making its US premiere at the New York Festival on Sunday, tells the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat as his career began taking off, and Shadowman, which opens wide at Quad Cinema on Dec. 1, considers Richard Hambleton, a contemporary who once fetched more money than Basquiat did, but who practically vanished into obscurity.
We wrote about Shadowman when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Boom For Real: The Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, directed by downtown indie film fixture Sara Driver, follows a similar formula, pairing archival footage with commentary by art critic Carlo McCormick and Basquiat contemporaries like Luc Sante, Lee Quiñones, Fab 5 Freddy, and Driver’s romantic and sometime filmmaking partner, Jim Jarmusch.
Notably missing here is the voice of Basquiat himself—we get plenty of candid photos, but the film covers the years before the artist was taken in by Warhol and became a media darling. In 1979, Basquiat was quasi-homeless, bed-hopping his way across the city. Musician Felice Rossner remembers letting him crash in her living room until his habit of blasting Einstürzende Neubauten on a boom box began to rankle her landlord. Basquiat and another one of her house guests— Alexis Adler, who also appears in the film— eventually got their own apartment on East 12th Street. The art he created there is the subject of a forthcoming exhibit at the Cranbook Art Museum.
Jarmusch remembers crossing paths with Basquiat while he was in Driver’s company and watching as he presented her with a rose, presumably swiped from a local bodega. “He was always trying to steal all the girls,” Jarmusch recalls.
Others remember Basquiat’s confidence, even as an unknown upstart, that he would one day be famous. Patricia Field, who sold Basquiat’s Man Made line of crudely painted outfits, remembers him pricing his work at $10,000 or $20,000, even though she told him it was a bit much. (The early works she showed were temporarily kept by one of her employees and tragically trashed when the employee was evicted.)
The contemporaries who get the most camera time in Boom for Real are early street artist Lee Quiñones and rap legend Fab 5 Freddy. Together, they describe how they helped graffiti, considered the “scourge of the city,” become an increasingly respected art form, and how they integrated hip-hop into the downtown art scene. All of these things merged in cool-kid “clubhouses” like Club 57, where, Kenny Scharf says, everyone “would be on psychedelics, bouncing around the walls, screaming.” Basquiat didn’t take part in those “shenanigans,” and instead gravitated toward Mudd Club.
Though it isn’t as widely celebrated as places like Studio 54 and Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club has been reclaiming some of its glory via a recently published memoir by doorman Richard Boch. It was there that Fab 5 Freddy’s trailblazing exhibit, “Beyond Words,” introduced many in New York’s new wave/punk scene to Afrika Bambaataa and other emerging fixtures of the uptown scene. The show “blew the doors of the graffiti world wide open,” Boch writes in The Mudd Club.
Other exhibits that were critical to Basquiat’s early career were the “New York New Wave” show at PS1 and the “Times Square Show”, a survey of the underground put on in a former “massage parlor.”
Boom For Real mentions some of Basquiat’s early press hits, like the 1978 Village Voice piece that profiled Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz, “the most ambitious—and sententious—of the Magic Marker Jeremiahs.” Basquiat, then 17, explained that their Samo© graffiti arose as an inside joke, and was short for “Sam Ol’ Shit.” Eventually, he and Diaz, who appears in Boom For Real, were doing 30 Samo© pieces a day, spray-painting evocative messages such as: “SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO JOE NORMAL BOOSH-WAH-ZEE FANTASIES.”
“This city is crawling with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have,” Basquiat told the Voice.
While Basquiat was attacking the bourgeoisie, he was also strategically placing his art around Soho and the East Village, in an effort to attract the attention of the art world. The documentary ends before Basquiat fully breaks through, so you’ll have to look elsewhere to find out how he got so big that one of his paintings, owned by Yoko Ono, is now being auctioned off for some $12 million.
Update, 1:45pm: Magnolia Pictures announced today that it has acquired North American theatrical rights to Boom For Real and is planning a 2018 release.