Home Video Hovel: Downtown 81, by Craig Schroeder
Downtown 81 could be your life. That is, if you were a discarded piece of gutter-punk trash living in the poor parts of Manhattan in the early 80s under Reagan-era social and economic policies. Downtown 81 — shot in the early 80s, abandoned by its producers and resuscitated at the turn of the century — is a narrative film that defies all understanding of what a narrative film looks like. It’s crudely made, shot with aggression and confidence, and preaches the ethos of a generation of punk kids and artists that the mainstream threatened to steamroll and forget. It is an imperfect spectacle; a film that captures the very soul of the punk-rock bands, street artists, and transgressive subcultures it zeroes in on.
Downtown 81 (née New York Beat) sees Jean-Michel Basquiat, the legendary street artist and staple of 80s punk-rock and pop-art, as himself wandering the streets of a largely neglected part of Manhattan, having been evicted from his apartment only to discover his fledgling punk band’s equipment has been stolen. In one evening, Basquiat encounters a number of characters within the New York art scene—bands (featuring actual musical acts from the scene like The Plastics, DNA, and Tuxedo Moon), yuppies, rappers and fairies disguised as vagabonds. Downtown 81 is brimming with imperfections that only serve to make the film more endearing, though its actual existence as a finished product is nearly inconceivable. After filming wrapped, director Edo Bertoglio lost all funding and the project was dead. In the late 90s, the project was revived and eventually saw a release in 2000. But between it’s filming in 1981 and its eventual release almost twenty years later, the film’s audio tracks (save for the numerous live performances featured in the film) were destroyed and later dubbed (because Basquiat died in the late 80s, his lines were dubbed by spoken word artist Saul Williams).
Downtown 81 isn’t the first anti-narrative of its kind, both John Cassavettes and Jim Jarmusch’s debut films, Shadows (1959) and Permanent Vacation (1980) respectively, tread very similar waters navigating the lives of musicians and their scenes. But Downtown 81 is a film that informs and is informed by every nuance of the movement and milieu it depicts. Despite the film’s roughed edges (which will assuredly alienate some audiences) and often assaultive narrative, Downtown 81 is quite beautiful. Bertoglio makes efficient use of close ups that are surprisingly sweet and effectively disorienting when paired with the energetic musical performances and dystopian view of the Lower East Side. The performances themselves are raw and aggressive but Bertoglio gives them even more weight by shooting the bands as an audience would see them, putting the viewer in the pit rather than in the back of the club with their hands in their pockets, half-heartedly nodding along to a band somewhere on the other side of the room.
Basquiat’s performance — as a non-actor whose every line is dubbed — should be a nuisance, but his character (perhaps as a product of playing himself) feels relaxed and lived-in. Even in scenes where the on-the-page dialogue feels stiff and unnatural, Basquiat does not. Though much of his crude and provocative graffiti is featured in the film, it’s Basquiat himself who gives the film its strongest credentials as an authentic part of 1980s New York artistic sub-culture.
A graffiti artist and non-actor starring in an existential, post-punk fairy tale where all the dialogue has been dubbed could easily be mistaken as a recap for a Mystery Science 3000 episode, but Downtown 81 is profound in its ability to capture the spirit of an artistic movement. And more than thirty years later, it has become significant not just as a cinematic journal of a creative renaissance but as a trusted source on the history of punk-rock, pop-art and film.