PRINT Summer 2000


Downtown 81

DOWNTOWN 81, A “LOST” NO-BUDGET FILM shot on location in Manhattan some nineteen years ago, finally had its debut last month, at Cannes. Directed by Edo Bertoglio and written by Glenn O’Brien, this lighthearted document of the East Village scene stars a twenty-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat as himself, with countless hipster cameos, including hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddie, ’80s Fiorucci designer (and the film’s producer) Maripol, record-label guy Marty Thau, and Blondie chanteuse Debbie Harry as the fairy princess.

But the real star of the film is the gritty milieu of a New York long gone. A lot has happened in nineteen years. Now that the Lower East Side has become something of an Epcot simulacrum of itself, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for Ye Olde Loisaida’s antique bohemian realities: brazen dope dealers, trash-strewn lots connecting burned-out buildings, artist-musician inhabitants lugging their own equipment to gigs.

From Blowup (1966) to After Hours (1985), most dramatic flicks that feature live music tease you with a few seconds of footage, and then they’re back to characters, plot, blah blah blah. If one could only luxuriate in those scenes—see more of the Yardbirds, say, or Bad Brains at the height of their powers. Downtown 81, in contrast, dotes on Arto Lindsay’s pounding, strangely melodic “no wave” power trio, DNA; Cool Kyle’s hip-hop rhymes; James White & the Blacks’ herky-jerky big band avant-funk; Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ stage show, which makes Bette Midler look tasteful; Tuxedomoon’s brooding proto electro-pop; and quirky Japanese New Wavers the Plastics, whose music may not have aged very well but who sure are cool to look at for one song.

Originally titled New York Beat, the film has a loose “plot” mostly revealed in campy neo-noir voice-overs laid down only recently by poet Saul Williams, whose voice is dubbed for Basquiat’s. (The dialogue tracks were lost years ago; as O’Brien puts it, “Our original partners had big problems.”) Downtown 81 follows the young artist as he is released from the hospital, hustles a painting for rent money, and pursues both a fashion model and a place to crash for the night.

Basquiat is a joy to watch. He floats through the movie with cool grace and unflagging energy; he’s a natural in front of the lens and, thankfully, takes your mind off the plot. The camera lingers in generous takes of the dreadlocked one “reworking” a Man Ray photo book and then gracefully spraying Samo graffiti in smooth, arcing motions. (Compare the mellow and controlled Basquiat in this film with the tragic figure in Julian Schnabel’s overblown 1996 biopic Basquiat.) And at the end of Downtown 81, when the fairy princess bestows a suitcase full of cash on the artist, the film seems almost eerily prescient.

Mike McGonigal, a Seattle-based music editor for, edits the arts journal Yeti.