Written by Glenn O’Brien
Produced by Maripol
Cinematography by John McNulty
Edited by Pamela French
Original music by Vincent Gallo and Gray (Jean-Michel Basquiat’s group)
USA, 1981/2001, New York Beat Films, DVD, color, 73 min.
With Jean-Michel Basquiat, James Chance (James White), Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Coati Mundi, Jimmy Destri, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Deborah Harry (as a baglady/fairy princess), Arto Lindsay, John Lurie, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Cookie Mueller, Elliott Murphy, Glenn O’Brien, Amos Poe, Lee Quiñones, Chris Stein, and many others
Although writer Glenn O’Brien and producer/designer Maripol originally intended DOWNTOWN 81 to be the portrait of a time and place – when they were young and involved in the creative scene – 20 years later the film became best known as the first extended portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his Downtown environment. Shot over a 6-week period (December 1980 – January 1981), this narrative feature was nearly lost when the original financiers went bust and lost the rough cut. Maripol eventually recovered the negative from the processing lab and two decades later DOWNTOWN 81 was finally seen by the public. While not a great film, it is a fascinating document of the people who were making music and art in a place that looked so similar to postwar Berlin – entire blocks of the Lower East Side and East Village lying in rubble. But out of the dust of destruction (before high-rise condos) came some very free and innovative art and music. As Jean-Michel says, “It can be a jungle, but it can be a paradise, too.”
The plot is simple in DOWNTOWN 81. 19-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, street artist/poet, gets released from a hospital and happily walks through miles of Manhattan streets to get back to his tenement apartment “Downtown.” He says on the soundtrack, “I was off to be the wizard. I didn’t have a care in the world.” When his landlord decides to lock him out of his place for owing back rent, the young artist grabs a painting and a bag of spray paint and sets out on an urban adventure to make some money and get a place to stay that night. Along the way he writes enigmatic lines of poetry on the walls of abandoned buildings. He runs into friends and benefactors, discovers his band’s equipment has been stolen, visits rehearsal spaces, clubs (Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge, Rock Lounge), and apartments, and casually introduces us to some of the players in the burgeoning Downtown art/music scene, including Tuxedomoon, DNA, The Plastics, Kid Creole and the Coconuts with Coati Mundi, James White and the Blacks, Blondie (Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and Jimmy Destri), graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy, and a wide array of minor habitués of the scene, all friends of the filmmakers, often doubling as crew members as well as on-screen personalities. For a period lasting less than ten years, this “Downtown Art Scene” erased barriers between arts and people, uptown and downtown and all around the five boroughs. It was an economically depressed time when a young person could live cheaply in Manhattan (in a definitely rundown apartment), work a couple of days a week, and spend the rest of the time creating, exhibiting, presenting, performing – a proverbial best of times, worst of times. – Chale Nafus
"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..."
Mike McGonigal, ARTFORUM