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Downtown 81 (a.k.a. New York Beat Movie) is a film that was shot in 1980-1981.
This film, directed by Edo Bertoglio, written and produced by Glenn O'Brien with post-production in 1999-2000 by Maripol, is a rare real-life snapshot of ultra-hip subculture of post-punk era Manhattan. Starring renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and featuring such Village artists as James Chance, Amos Poe, Walter Steding, and Tav Falco, the film is a bizarre elliptical urban fairytale. In 1999, Michael Zilkha, founder of ZE records (the label of several of the film's artists), became the film's Executive Producer.
The film opens with Jean (Basquiat) in the hospital with an undisclosed ailment. After checking out, he happens upon an enigmatic woman, Beatrice (Anna Schroeder), who drives around in a convertible. He arrives at his apartment only to discover that his landlord, played by former Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky, is evicting him.
Later, while trying to sell his art work, he encounters many downtown New York characters, from musician Arto Lindsay and his band DNA to David McDermott to graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy. Jean eventually does manage to sell some of his art work to a rich middle-aged woman who is interested in more than just his art, but she pays with a check. As the film progresses, he wanders the streets of New York City, looking for Beatrice. He catches performances by Kid Creole and the Coconuts and James White and the Blacks. Finally he happens upon a bag lady (Debbie Harry) who turns into a princess when he kisses her. As a reward, she gives him a stack of cash.
Writer Glenn O’Brien, who knew Basquiat from his TV Party program and the Mudd Club, said of the movie: “Penniless, Jean-Michel was kicked out of his apartment, then tried to sell his paintings for daily income. He showed up at clubs and tried to pick up girls to go to her apartment to have someplace to sleep. Basically, it was based on his real life…” O'Brien had worked for Andy Warhol, and had adopted his technique of having actors essentially play themselves with a minimal plot. “The film is an exaggerated version of life” he said.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was homeless at the time of the movie, and slept in the production office during most of the shooting. The film production bought Basquiat canvas and paints to make paintings for the film. The paintings that appear in the movie belonging to Basquiat’s character are by Basquiat himself, and among his first canvases.
'New York Beat' was shot over December 1980 and January 1981. It was initially funded by Fiorucci and Rizzoli, but the movie was abandoned in the mid-'80s due to financial problems. Producers O'Brien and Maripol resurrected the film after acquiring the rights in 1999 (over a decade after Basquiat's death). It was released in 2000 as 'Downtown '81.'
The dialogue audio for the film was lost, so actor Saul Williams dubbed the late Basquiat's voice. However, the musical soundtrack, mostly live club performances recorded on location using a RCA 24 track mobile unit, survived.
The soundtrack features music by: Jean Michel Basquiat with Andy Hernandez; Basquiat's own band, Gray; John Lurie (who cameos in the film) and the Lounge Lizards, DNA, Tuxedomoon, the Plastics, Marvin Pontiac, Kenny Burrell, the Specials, Chris Stein, Melle Mel with Blondie, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, Vincent Gallo, Lydia Lunch, Steve French and Suicide. Many of the recordings were of live performances, but DNA and Tuxedomoon were recorded in the studio for the soundtrack.
After it premiered as 'Downtown '81' at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival reviews were mostly favorable. Variety called it “an extraordinary real-life snapshot of hip, arty, clubland Manhattan in the post-punk era.”
A rare movie review in Artforum said "Basquiat is a joy to watch. He floats through the movie with cool grace and unflagging energy; he's a natural in front of the lens..."
British Art Critic Adrian Searle wrote that “Downtown 81 captures that New York moment when punk, emerging rap, art school cool and the East Village art and music scenes were at their creative best.”
While the main appeal of the film seems to have been the art and music, some commentators also appreciated giving the modern viewer a peek at the decimated Lower East Side of 1980, saying "the real star of the film is the gritty milieu of a New York long gone", and that "New York Beat...conveys the vast gulf between Manhattan’s rich and the forgotten corners of the city, and the marginal existence of the artistic underground who tried to survive in between these worlds."