Basquiat as a teen becoming an artist (and then he died)

Posted May 15, 2018 1:32 p.m. EDT

Jean-Michel Basquiat, it turns out, was a phenom by the age of 18, even before he launched his fabled, seven-year career as a painter. That is the point convincingly made in the new documenatry film ``Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.''

Through interviews with a long roster of luminaries of the downtown New York scene of the 1970s, filmmaker Sara Driver creates a portrait of a kid everyone knew was going to be big. At least, that's how they remember things now, and Driver keeps their tales engaging with great music and vintage clips of CBGB, Club 57, the Mudd Club and the crumbling Lower East Side.

Based on the evidence of snippets of old film footage, strategically woven through the new movie, Basquiat was undeniably cute. Yet it may be hard to believe that everyone but the landlord loved the noise music he is said to have played at 3 a.m. And if waking up to find that your refrigerator door or your favorite coat were crudely painted during the night might have charmed some, it's a bit suspicious not to meet anyone who now regrets tossing out both art and artist when things went too far.

Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988. Last year, a painting by him sold at $110.5 million, setting the record auction price for a work by any U.S. artist in history. The film, however, ends in 1981 with the engaging story of the artist's sale of his first ``real painting,'' the day after it was finished, to Henry Geldzahler, the famous collector and curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He paid $500.

Little of the art we see in the film looks much like that work or, in fact, promising in the least. Hagiography doesn't require that kind of evidence. And a long stock sequence of a rocket hurtling into space ends the story thrillingly, if tellingly.

Charles Desmarais is The San Francisco Chronicle's art critic.

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

2 1/2 stars out of 4 stars Documentary. Directed by Sara Driver. (Unrated. 78 minutes).