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    Downtown 81

    Tag party

    Released after 20 years, "Downtown 81" stars graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Debbie Harry and others in a rough but now-nostalgic look at the New York art scene when creative freedom was still allowed to trample the quality of life.


    It's hard to write about "Downtown 81" without feeling all nostalgic. I wasn't even in New York in the early '80s; my life at that time revolved around surviving junior school in Orlando, Fla., and trying to get my hair to feather. And still I felt a little wistful as I watched the movie.

    Directed by: Edo Bertoglio.
    Written by: Glenn O'Brien.
    Cast: Jean-Michel Basquiat, August Darnell, Debbie Harry, John Lurie, David McDermott, Glenn O'Brien, Walter Steding.

    Related links: Official site
    "Downtown 81" — which has the feel of a student film, and possesses both the unvarnished insights and poor structure of same — was filmed in the old New York that last-generation hipsters are always rhapsodizing about. It was a time when downtown drug dealers were like Coney Island carnival barkers, boldly beckoning and unwilling to take no for an answer. When spraying a building with graffiti was about self-expression and not a challenge to anyone's quality of life. When bands had art-school sensibilities, and people danced when they went to hear them play.

    This was before irony and Giuliani — two forces destructive to creativity — reigned.

    The late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat stars in this documentary-like movie, and he couldn't be better cast. Basquiat came up in the early 80s, and he died in 1988, so it's impossible to imagine him in any other context.

    Here, he plays a twenty-something painter whose landlord evicts him over $422.66 he owes in back rent (you read that right: just over 400 bones). Before he leaves his sparse apartment, Basquiat manages to grab one of his paintings, which he plans to sell for rent money.

    Debbie Harry and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81. in Downtown 81  
    Debbie Harry and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81.
    The first third of the movie we spend with him, walking the streets, meeting up with friends (he knows everyone), writing graffiti on buildings. And it's fun. In "Downtown 81," New York is not a teeming global marketplace but a decaying playground for artists and musicians who seem to care more about having a good time than about decorating their apartment or checking the financial pages.

    The film takes us away from the realm of responsibility — even Basquiat's rent situation seems like folly before long — and I, for one, was grateful for the respite.

    And then there's Basquiat himself, who displays an easygoing, go-with-the-flow nature that is quite appealing. At one point, he stops by a tiny makeshift dance club — imagine an unrenovated storefront with a few pieces of sound equipment — and joins in with the dancers for a few minutes, then pops back out again and continues his journey.

    But after he finds his buyer — a wealthy woman who wonders if next he can paint her something in pink — the film starts to fall apart. She pays him $500, $20 in cash and the rest with a check. So he has money for fun but not for shelter, and so he goes to wander some more, still homeless.

    Earlier in the movie, he had met a beautiful woman in a convertible, and now he aims to find her again. But there are too many digressions for this search to feel not only linear but relevant. Director Edo Bertoglio chose this part of the film to feature major musical acts of the time — Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks — and the lengthy performance scenes distract from the narrative.

    It's not a good sign if you're checking your watch during an 80-minute movie.

    Things pick up again toward the end, when Basquiat has a magical-realist encounter with a bag-lady-turned-princess played by Debbie Harry. And the movie ends in a charming way: Basquiat finds a suitcase full of money that he handles with such disregard you can scarcely believe we would ever enter a "greed is good" phase.

    But by this time, I had lost my patience with the movie. Like Basquiat, "Downtown 81" is an example of potential not fully realized.

    JULY 13, 2001

    Reader comments on Downtown 81:

  • Art and life   from R.L Houston, Mar 10, 2003
  • me gusta jean michel Basquiat   from emiliano, Jun 29, 2004
  • [no subject]   from stocktake90, Sep 12, 2004
  • I need a copy   from Gerald, Nov 24, 2004
  • the movie   from annie, Jan 10, 2005
  • war? what war.   from JINKII, Mar 14, 2005
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat   from Francesca, Jun 17, 2005
  • Downtown 81   from michaeldanielweller, Apr 25, 2006

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