Sara Driver’s doc of THE LATE TEENAGE YEARS OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT is just that. It is the story of the NYC Graffiti artist pre-fame. None of his most famous paintings are shown on the screen till the end of the film.
The doc begins with a lengthy History of New York City – when it was run down, ugly and poor with a high occupancy rate. As the voiceover informs, landlords were aware that they were not going to rent out their places any time soon, so they were burning them to claim the insurance money. Then-President Gerald Ford announces that he will never ok a bill that will bail out the city by default. It is almost a full 15 minutes in this hour and 15 minute film that Basquiat is first introduced into the picture.
Director Driver’s aim for her film is twofold – firstly to create the atmosphere and period of the times where street artists of that era touted their wares among the elite art groups. The second is to reveal Basqiuat’s talent in these difficult and challenging times.
This she accomplishes using never-before-seen works, writings and photographs. Driver herself was part of the New York arts scene, so she knows her stuff and it shows. She had worked closely and collaboratively with friends and other artists who emerged from that period.
Among them are film director Jim Jarmusch, James Nares, Fab Five Freddy, Glenn O’Brien, Kenny Scharf, Lee Quinones, Patricia Field, Luc Sante and many others. Jarmusch and Sante are given the most screen time, having the most to say. Those interviewed draw upon their memories and anecdotes. The film also uses period film footage, music and images to visually re-recreate the era, drawing a portrait of Jean- Michel and Downtown New York City -pre AIDS, President Reagan, the real estate and art booms – before anyone was motivated by money and ambition.
Besides Basqiuat’s talent, he is also revealed to be penniless and occasionally homeless, crashing at friends’ apartments and even allowing himself to become a rent-boy for a roof over his head for the night. A lady’s man who would steal anyone’s pretty girlfriend. According to Jarmusch, he would disappear around the block to steal a flower to present to his friend’s lady. Basqiuat also indulged with the drugs of the time, like LSD, which explains many of his psychedelic pieces.
An interviewee claimed that Basqiaut would eventually become as famous as Andy Warhol, who everyone respected at the time. Indeed Basqiaut did. His famous and most recognized works are shown at the end of the film. These are the 7 or so years before Basqiaut achieved that status. An eye-opening film on Basqiaut’s late teenage years. If he was still alive today, he would be of the age of many of those interviewed, and would provide priceless insight of himself when interviewed.