Downtown 81

Catalog from an exhibit with many fine reproductions of major Basquiat paintings, along with portrait photographs of the artist, a chronology of his life, and essays and interviews in both Italian and English translation.

Downtown 81 is named for its setting, taking place mostly in downtown New York City in 1981. As a “found” film that actually completed principle photography back in 1981, it is only now being released. Its promotion is founded on the resurgent popularity of its star, the late artist Jean Michel Basquiat. His prominence was helped by Julian Schnabel’s 1999 biographical film, Basquiat, a not altogether successful picture notable mainly for a strong performance by Jeffrey Wright. The real Basquiat acts here. Twenty-years old and yet to meet fame and fortune, he plays a fictional character named Jean, but he is essentially playing himself.

Downtown 81 tracks Jean in a 24-hour period after his release from the hospital following an unnamed malady. He finds himself locked out of his apartment due to failure to pay the rent and subsequently wanders about town hoping to sell a painting to earn rent money. Bumping into friends and acquaintances and the occasional wacko wherever he goes, Jean finally encounters Claudia (Lisa Rosen), a maid. Claudia takes him to her employer, Mrs. Cavalcanti (Daniela Morera), who is interested in Jean’s work. While preferring something in pink, she’ll take the painting Jean has slung under his arm. She gives him a check, which is too late to cash, so he wanders some more.

With no real story and the characters notable only for their eccentricity, Downtown 81 works on vibe alone. It does manage to capture the lively and wacky feel of the underground art and music scene of the time, an aspect of the city that feels relatively sterile in post-Giuliani New York. The film, though, also shows a run-down city of browns and grays, a startling contrast to today’s polished, tourist-friendly Manhattan. Downtown 81 presents the underground culture and brings its pretentiousness along with it. Jean’s continual voice-over, which tries to hide the fact that nothing else is holding this film together, is loaded with groaners. Attempting to be poetic, he recites, “New York is my kind of town. If you can make it there, you can sell your unwanted hair.” After a wearying day, Jean, still wandering, tells us, “I think I’d take a walk down a dark alley. Maybe I’d run into myself.”

Downtown 81 occasionally veers into the surreal, as when Deborah Harry appears as a princess turned into a bag lady. She seeks a kiss to regain her original form. Punk violinist Walter Steding, who once opened for Blondie, appears in the most amusing vignette in the movie as he complains about the tribulations of being a musician. His 3-minute bit is like a surreal short stuck into the middle of Downtown 81.

The film’s otherworldliness is accentuated by its terrible dubbing. Aside from some musical performances, Downtown 81 was apparently shot with the intention of adding most of the sound later. Its soundtrack was almost entirely put together in postproduction and it was done quite shoddily. Characters appear with voices that could not possibly be their own, not to mention the failure to convincingly lip-synch the dubbing.

Notwithstanding Basquiat, the movie’s publicity is heavily geared toward the musicians in the film, and it should be. Downtown 81 only really comes to life during the unrestrained musical performances of DNA, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Jack White and the Blacks, all of whom Jean encounters while traversing recording studios and clubs. A wonderful punk/funk concert film lies buried somewhere in here.

Downtown 81 is shamelessly self-indulgent and, aspiring to a hollow existentialism, ends up closer to astrology than to meaningful philosophy.. Still, it manages to make its faults work for it. Along so-bad-it’s-good lines, Downtown 81‘s poor filmmaking and general dumbness ultimately elicits more charm than antipathy. It possesses a sincere wistfulness that makes it more than just a curio about and from a bygone time.

George Wu

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New York, NY
George Wu holds a masters degree in cinema studies from NYU. He eats, drinks, and sleeps movies. Fortunately, he lives in New York City, the best place in the country for disorders of this type. He also works on the occasional screenplay when inspiration strikes, but his muses don't slap him around enough.