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.
By KRISTINA FELICIANO
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.
"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.
|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
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
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
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.
|Debbie Harry and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81.|| |
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|
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