'Downtown 81': Film Review

Courtesy of Metrograph Pictures/Edo Bertoglio
Come for the art mystique, stay for the music.
10/25/2019

Jean-Michel Basquiat plays a version of himself in Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O'Brien's long-buried tour through lower Manhattan's art scene.

We often say, of old movies we enjoy but can't completely endorse in cinematic terms, that they are "time capsules" valuable for what they capture from a certain place and time. It's tempting to take that a step further when discussing Downtown 81, a barely fictional look at New York's dawn-of-the-'80s art scene written by the late Glenn O'Brien and directed by Edo Bertoglio: This movie, shot in 1980-1981 but not completed until decades later, isn't a capsule containing images of the past, but rather, a time machine, allowing young nostalgists to temporarily inhabit a moment that continues to inspire twenty-something culture vultures today.

Starring a then-unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat, the pic would never have been finished if he hadn't shot to fame immediately after production; his name is certainly what will draw attention to the film as it now begins a national tour (a tour starting at a theater, the Metrograph, located at the heart of the area where the movie was shot.) But for many of us, Downtown 81's real selling point is its you-are-there experience of the music scene: rare, maybe even unique chances to watch bands who are less famous than they are influential, each performing at its peak.

Basquiat plays "Jean," a penniless artist and musician who enters the film in a hospital bed. We're not sure why he was admitted, but his doctors soon allow him to leave, and the pic basks in that freedom. In a voiceover that revels in cliches it sometimes tweaks slightly, the artist reveals his make-it-there-and-anywhere ambition: There's a "diamond-brick road" before him, and he's "off to be the wizard."

But first, there's rent to pay. Jean lives in a Lower East Side dump, but he still has managed to pile up more than $400 in unpaid rent. His landlord kicks him out, but Jean takes it in stride, grabbing a recent painting from his room that he's sure he can sell for that much. And if not, there's the rich fashion model who picked him up on his way home from the hospital. Beatrice (Anna Schroeder) felt an instant connection to this quietly charismatic man, and before the ride was over, offered, "Let me take care of you for the rest of your life." As the prospect of homelessness grows more real in the second half of this day-in-the-life, Jean will start hunting for Beatrice, hoping to take her up on the offer.

From the start, viewers will notice that dialogue has been dubbed in, and will probably assume the producers avoided on-location sound recording for budgetary reasons. That's not the case. The film was actually well funded — in part by the fashion magnate Elio Fiorucci, who suggested that O'Brien should spearhead a movie documenting the vibrant culture scene he was then writing about for Interview magazine. But postproduction turned disastrous, and audio tracks of the dialogue got lost.

Dubbing occurred long after the fact, when Basquiat was no longer around to record his lines; that duty fell to the musician/writer Saul Williams. Unfortunately, while Williams has sometimes been explosively charismatic while performing his own material, his attempt to replicate Basquiat's sly magnetism falls flat. Still, the artist is beautiful onscreen, and, since the story is never more than a flimsy excuse to walk around New York, a strong acting performance would be beside the point.

When Jean isn't writing graffiti on dirty walls, the pic moves him through the home of a rich art patron, the rehearsal spaces of bands and a fashion designer (Maripol, the film's producer), and the postapocalyptic neighborhoods where New York's underemployed artists once lived. Most of the people he meets are, as O'Brien later put it, "playing an exaggerated version of themselves, and everyone was fairly exaggerated already." As night falls and he still hasn't found Beatrice, he begins hitting up bars like the fabled Mudd Club, mostly ignoring the musical acts whose performances capture the camera's attention.

Praise be to the gods of hip, audio tracks of these musical sets did survive, and the performances are captured beautifully. DNA, for instance, was probably never filmed this professionally: Generations of fans who've discovered singer/guitarist Arto Lindsay through later projects and worked backward will relish the chance to see him alongside drummer (and later, electronic experimentalist) Ikue Mori and bassist Tim Wright.

DNA, though hardly the only source of musical thrills, is the biggest name here. Yes, the members of Blondie play bit parts as actors; yes, John Lurie's distinctive saxophone is heard on the soundtrack. But the film's performances come from bands who never achieved that level of fame, however influential they were. Tuxedomoon and the Plastics are seen in tightly constructed performance scenes, while more expansive sequences feature James White and The Blacks. Sometime Warhol assistant Walter Steding appears, as do King Creole and the Coconuts — who prove to be something much greater than the novelty act they might seem from afar.

For anyone steeped in or curious about the often uncategorizable music made during this period, Downtown 81 is a joyous artifact. It's also a chance to see an artist who would be practically deified back when he was merely the darling of one scruffy neighborhood. Graffiti (and the creative defacement of a Man Ray monograph) aside, Basquiat hardly demonstrates his artistic gifts here. But he does offhandedly capture something of the essence of those magical time-place-people collisions that produce both stars and underground legends. As he carries one of his paintings down the street looking for a miracle, his voiceover calmly explains his confidence: "If you want to see somebody, just think hard. You'll run into them."

Production company: New York Beat Films
Distributor: Metrograph Pictures
Cast: Jean-Michel Basquiat
Director: Edo Bertoglio
Screenwriter: Glenn O'Brien
Producer: Maripol
Executive producer: Michael Zikha
Director of photography: John McNulty
Editor: Pamela French

70 minutes