December 8, 2021

“Downtown 81” Captures the New York Era When Basquiat was Almost Famous


Through much of the film “Downtown 81,” Jean-Michel Basquiat walks the streets of New York with a painting under his arm. The painting is, by all accounts, one of the first Basquiat ever created.

Like everyone in this not-really fictional film of New York’s early 1980s underground scene, Basquiat plays a version of himself. At the time of the film’s shooting — late 1980 and early 1981 — Basquiat was a 19-year-old graffiti artist unknown to the larger art world. He was homeless. He slept in the film’s production office during the course of the shoot. The filmmakers gave him his first canvases and paints so he could create the painting we see him/his character carry.

Written by Warhol Factory-alum and Interview magazine editor Glenn O’Brien, and directed by Swiss photographer Edo Bertoglio, “Downtown 81” has been re-released in a new 35 mm print. It screens at AFS Cinema Nov. 29 through Dec. 5..

After it was filmed, “Downtown 81” was actually shelved without release due to a tangle of financial/legal difficulties. When it was revived for the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, all the dialogue had to be rerecorded; the original dialogue track was lost while the film was mothballed. It’s easy to detect the dubbing in most scenes, though it’s mostly not a distractor. Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27, is dubbed by actor/writer Saul Williams.

But while it’s the legend of Basquiat that’s currently bringing art world buzz to the re-release, he was hardly the film’s intended solo star. At the time, O’Brien had a music column in Interview called “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat” and the movie, originally called “New York Beat Movie” is a filmic spin-off, a highlight of the city’s downtown bands, particularly the then-trendy No Wave groups. O’Brien also had a New York public access show “TV Party” at the time which was essentially a variety show/talk show of New York’s underground. Basquiat was a regular on “TV Party.”

“Downtown 81” starts with Basquiat being released from a hospital stay for some never-disclosed illness — a prescient plot coincidence given that the artist later died of AIDS. Penniless and needing cash to reclaim the Lower East Side apartment he’s been evicted from, Basquiat strikes out to sell his painting.

Downtown 81
Jean-Michel Basquiat in “Downtown 81.”

Basquiat is our flâneur through this day-and-night-in-the-life of New York’s downtown art and music scene. He stops in various clubs — the Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge — and  thus we’re treated to rare filmed performances by James White and the Blacks, Arto Lindsay’s DNA, Japan’s The Plastics and Tuxedomoon. (There’s also an extended show scene with the very non-No Wave Kid Creole & the Coconuts — go figure.)

John Lurie makes a cameo. So do violinist/sometime Warhol assistant Walter Steding; cult actress Cookie Mueller, who plays a dancer in a strip club; graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Fab Five Freddy; and seminal rapper Kool Kyle.

Along the way, Basquiat sprays his graffiti on the sides of the city’s readily available torched-out buildings. And there’s an Edie Sedgewick-inspired fashion show that is trippy and fun and distinctly not polished. Finally, Debbie Harry plays a bag lady who transforms into a wish-granting fairy princess and hands Basquiat a stack of cash.

“Downtown 81” is nothing if not a time capsule — a portrait of New York when the city was still hollowed out by its financial crisis of the 1970s yet percolating with a kind of scrappy creativity. At the time, you didn’t need much to do much.

Youthful nostalgists writing now about “Downtown 81” inevitably wax about the city’s affordability and possibility  — how cool it all must have been. For those of us who lived in New York at the time, there’s not much nostalgia in rubble-filled lots, garbage strikes, black-outs and the extreme urban dysfunction they represent. But yes — an easily-tapped, authentic creativity flourished in New York despite all the dysfunction. And that was cool.

Sightlines readers get $2 off tickets with the code basquiat at austinfilm.org


Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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