Downtown 81 (2000)


(director: Edo Bertoglio; screenwriter: Glenn O’Brien; cinematographer: John McNulty; editor: Pamela French; music: Gray, Jean-Michel Basquiat with Andy Hernandez, John Lurie, DNA, Tuxedomoon, the Plastics, Marvin Pontiac, Kenny Burrell, the Specials, Melle Mel with Blondie, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, and others; cast: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Deborah Harry, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tuxedomoon, Fab Five Freddie, Walter Steding; Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Maripol Fauque; Zeitgeist Films; 1981)
“Invaluable because it catches the sights, sounds and moods of a city that are of a bygone era.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Takes place for the most part in the lower downtown area of New York City; it was shot in 1981 and lost for 21 years. Ill-fated 19-year-old NY artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (celebrated graffiti artist, who died from a drug overdose in 1988 at age 27) plays himself in this crude work that mixes truth and fiction, where he’s an innocent struggling artist and musician. The oddball amateurish film, a slice of life flick, mixes together the city’s booming art and music scene with a lot of atrocious dialogue and pretensions. It brings back memories of when the city was a haven for such carefree hipster underground artists. It’s directed by fashion photographer Edo Bertoglio and written by pop-culture critic cable access TV show’s Glenn O’Brien.

Basquiat checks out of a hospital for some unnamed ailment and spends the rest of the movie wandering aimlessly around Manhattan. After passing the Guggenheim and stopping only to blow his horn, he returns to his slum neighborhood in the Lower East Side, where his angry landlord locked him out because of back rent owed. The artist grabs one of his paintings in the hopes of selling it for $500 to pay the rent. He looks for a place to crash and meets artist buddies like Fab Five Freddy and a stranger–a gorgeous Italian model who gives him a ride. Basquiat drops in on a number of downtown scenes that are happening: taking in a Liquid Sky fashion show and digging the performances of New Wave bands like DNA, catches Kid Creole do a monster Calypso number at the long gone Peppermint Lounge, and avant-rock violinist Walter Steding playing at the hip Mudd Club. Deborah Harry pops up as a bag lady, as she’s in a skit reaching for some kind of fairy tale motif whereby she turns into a princess when he kisses her.

The lost film was found by the fashion stylist producer Maripol Fauque and he recut what was salvageable (using Saul Williams of Slam fame to do the new lines for the deceased Basquiat). It was screened at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

It works strictly as a time capsule, giving one a look back at a pre-Giuliani city that seemed unruly and filled with garbage-strewn streets but produced art. Invaluable because it catches the sights, sounds and moods of a city that are of a bygone era. It has little value as a piece of art or as a real film, but it scores as nostalgia for the good old days of chaos, generosity and art before the sinister corporate mentality took hold of the city and attacked the city’s underground roots in the name of progress and safety.