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Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's Teenage Years In 'Boom For Real'


The work of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is some of the most sought-after in the world. The New York-based artist died when he was just 27 and on the cusp of becoming an international star. His creative youth is the focus of a new documentary that's called "Boom For Real," as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Boom For Real" is about the late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.


ULABY: In 1979, the Brooklyn-born high school dropout was living on the streets and hanging out with East Village punks and graffiti artists like Al Diaz.


AL DIAZ: At one point, he did turn to me and say that he knew that he was going to be very famous.

ULABY: ...And Alexis Adler.


ALEXIS ADLER: When I met him, I went to a club and we partied all night, you know, which is what we did.

ULABY: Today, Adler is an embryologist. But then, she was a downtown denizen. She lived with Basquiat when he was 18 and 19. She had a bunch of his old drawings in storage, and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, she worried they might be damaged. When she checked, Adler found more of his things than she expected. She showed them to her friend, the documentary's director, Sara Driver.

SARA DRIVER: And when I saw it all, I just thought, this is not only a window into him, but it's a window into this particular time in New York City from 1978 to 1981.

ULABY: Back then, New York City was a mess.


GERALD FORD: And unless the federal government intervenes, New York City within a short time will no longer be able to pay its bills.

ULABY: This speech by then-President Gerald Ford starts the movie and sets the tone. Graffiti artist Lee Quinones remembers a New York riddled with crime and desperate for that bailout.

LEE QUINONES: At that time when it was breaking apart at all the seams, we kind of felt like we needed to rescue it by creating art and having a voice for the city.

ULABY: But a voice missing in this documentary is Basquiat's. We see him painting and goofing off, but not talking. Director Sara Driver.

DRIVER: I wanted him like a ghost in the movie, that he was a touchstone throughout the film for this kind of greater environment which helped create who he was.

ULABY: Driver knew Basquiat. Back then, she was part of the scene. Her documentary, "Boom For Real," reconnects with the community of people with firsthand memories of who Basquiat was and how he worked.

DRIVER: ...How he would put words on a piece of legal yellow paper, where he would put two lines and then cross something out, and that's all he would put. I mean, everything was very specifically laid out.

ULABY: And he tried things out in exchanges with friends, painting on any surfaces that happened to be available, says Lee Quinones.

QUINONES: And that's why there's so much in such a short amount of time kind of, like, splattered all over the city, you know? His legacy is on that notepad paper, on a paper bag, on a box, on a refrigerator door, on a T-shirt. There was an urgency of, like, not enough time, and that's a very haunting place to be at as a youth.

ULABY: Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose. Despite being on the scene for less than a decade, he helped define it, says writer and performance artist Jennifer Jazz in the movie.


JENNIFER JAZZ: And when they talk about Jackson Pollock and when they talk about Titian and talk about whoever, they will also mention Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in a world where black people are not celebrated or supported - the art world - right? - he did it. He did it. He blew the roof off that sucker.

ULABY: Art world celebrity, art world ghost - Jean-Michel Basquiat's enduring mystique has been explored in catalogs, poetry, children's books, biographies and three earlier movies. "Boom For Real" is unlikely to be the last. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.