Like lots of cultural icons who die before their time, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat endures in popular imagination not just because of what he achieved, but because he embodies our idea of a very particular time and place—specifically the shabby-chic bohemianism of early-‘80s New York City. And for nostalgia addicts who (rightly or wrongly) romanticize Manhattan’s pre-Guiliani decay as the ultimate hipster playground, the re-release of Edo Bertoglio’s Basquiat-starring “lost film” Downtown 81 will go down like New Wave catnip. Sure, this kicked-puppy of a film doesn’t exactly rise to the level of Great Cinema. But as a vintage L.E.S. photo Tumblr brought to life, it’s fascinating stuff.
Born in 1960, Jean-Michel Basquiat would die at age 27 in 1988 from an accidental heroin overdose. In 1981, however, he was just a wide-eyed, semi-homeless, 19-year-old graffiti artist who had just barely begun translating his arresting visuals onto canvas. But mostly he was a scenester, floating through downtown hotspots like the Mudd Club looking cool and collecting glamorous friends like Fab Five Freddy, Debbie Harry, and John Lurie (all of whom cameo in Downtown 81.) Using the young Jean-Michel’s carefree transience as our entry point, 81 depicts an immediately pre-AIDS, pre-Goetz Manhattan as seen through the asymmetrical statement glasses of the city’s coolest 1%: a vibrant amalgamation of old-school hip-hop, post-punk, free jazz, and slam poetry held together at poverty-level by a diverse group of tight-knit weirdoes.
In form, Downtown 81 is difficult to categorize. It’s essentially a documentary; then, in its second half, a concert film featuring energetic, full-song performances by niche artists including Kid Creole and James Chance. The throughline comes courtesy of a half-baked “urban fairy tale” premise, which follows Jean-Michel over the course of 24 hours on a dreamlike journey into the city’s artiest nooks and crannies. See Jean-Michel lug his canvases around the streets while musing about life in beat poetry voiceover. See Jean-Michel get booted out of his apartment. See Jean-Michel befriend a mysterious model driving a red convertible. See Jean-Michel sell a painting to a lascivious older woman (and get paid by check). See Jean-Michel chase down a thief. Plus a half-dozen more likeminded vignettes, all blocked and shot with charming amateurishness. Sure it’s staged, but it’s easy to believe that this is what being Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1981 was actually like, minus some magical realism hokum.
Maybe it’s faint praise to say Downtown 81 works better as footage than as a movie. But that’s the whole reason the film exists today at all. Originally shot as New York Beat in 1980 and early ‘81, the project was never completed until two decades later when outside producers acquired the footage and completed the film, in its present form, as Downtown 81. While it’s unclear how much Downtown 81 represents director Edo Bertoglio’s original New York Beat vision versus post-production triage, it seems unlikely that the film’s naïve narrative and amateurish production values were ever its selling points. What Downtown 81 sells instead—then and now—is coolness. And the temporal distance between 1981 and 2014 has only made Basquiat and his hepcat cronies even more alien and untouchable—i.e. even cooler. So this is a rare example of a film’s troubled production history actually working in service of its mission.
At 72 brisk minutes, Downtown 81 knows exactly how long it can extend itself before the audience starts expecting more. Anyone interested in the history of New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or fringe-level post-punk should skip immediately to their favorite parts on YouTube. And if watching the movie makes you feel terminally unhip by comparison, don’t worry. Your life will seem pretty cool to some other nerd in about 20 years.
Downtown 81 is now available for rental on VOD platforms