Downtown 81, featuring a nineteen year old Jean-Michel Basquiat, captured the movers and shakers from the no wave, hip-hop, graffiti, and alternative fashion scenes, as they collided down in the depths of New York’s lower east side. Originally shot by director Edo Bertoglio in the winter of 1980-81, it remained unreleased for nearly twenty years before being re-assembled in 1999 by co-producer Maripol Fauque (a Polaroid photographer and fashion designer, behind the iconic look for Madonna on the cover of Like a Virgin). Basquiat first acquired notoriety in the early eighties New York art scene with his ‘Samo’ graffiti slogans, which caught the attention of TV Party host Glenn O’Brien. After Basquiat appeared as a guest on O’Brien’s cable access show, he was inspired to write a script based on the visual artist’s life on the streets of New York. Underscoring the rhythm and the feel of the film is the soundtrack and featured live performances, which present a parallel story of the roots of the no wave and hip-hop music scenes.
The main plot follows Basquiat as he awakens in a hospital disorientated from an unspecified illness, checks out and heads downtown. He happens upon an enigmatic woman, Beatrice (Anna Schroeder), who drives him around in a convertible and offers to look after him. She drops him off at his apartment only for Basquiat to discover that his landlord is evicting him. Basquiat walks the streets reintegrating with musicians, dealers, graffitists, friends and enemies, before managing to sell some of his artwork to a rich middle-aged woman. Traveling between strip clubs, studios, fashion shows and nightclubs, Basquiat searches for Beatrice to have a place to stay for the night.
Basquiat wanders through this urban fairytale, with the fragmented, elliptical structure framed by an overdubbed inner monologue (read by poet/rapper Saul Williams as the original recording was lost).
Downtown 81 portrays New York as a city that has been knocked down and is starting from scratch; the streets reclaimed and used by artists to rebuild new cultural forms to express themselves. Along with Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (filmed a year earlier), Downtown 81 shows a New York before re-generation sacrificed the edgier elements that fuelled the artists of the early eighties.
In one sequence, the film moves back and forth between Tuxedomoon performing ‘Desire’ in Blank Tape Studios (where most of the no wave artists recorded) and Basquait drawing childlike faces on an old apartment block. Tuxedomoon’s Winston Tong delivers a lovers lament, with vivid William Burrough’s inspired imagery about American consumerism, over spitting cymbal loops (borrowing a vocal hook from Arthur Russell’s disco-punk classic ‘Go Bang’).
Basquiat was also involved in the music scene at the time playing with the band Gray alongside Michael Holman (who conceived and presented Graffiti Rock, the groundbreaking TV show about hip-hop culture), Nicholas Taylor and polymath Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66). Gray’s haunting ambient piece ‘Drum Mode’ is used over hand held documentary shots of Basquiat, as walks through the burnt out rubbles of the lower east side neighborhoods, and graffiti’s walls with hip hop haikus.
Two years prior to the making of the film, Brian Eno, inspired by the bands he saw at a New York underground music festival, produced the influential No New York compilation. It featured the funk punk James Chance and the Contortions and DNA who both perform in Downtown 81. Providing one of the most visceral performances in the film, DNA’s ‘Blonde Redhead’ deconstructs the guitar with broken shards of noise over a minimal floor tom groove and elastic bass line. The howl of Arto Lindsay is unnerving, unmelodic, and confessional in the way Black Francis would later exorcise his demons in the Pixies. Aesthetically they provided a template for nerd rock; guys who couldn’t possibly play and look like Led Zeppelin but still wanted to create noise.
James Chance, renamed as James White and the Blacks, are shown performing later in the film at the Peppermint Lounge (where the ‘twist’ dance craze of the early sixties originated). James White’s concoction of funk grooves, squealing free-jazz saxophone, call and response girl backing singers with deranged post-punk vocals, brought together many of the sounds of New York’s underground musical traditions. He would be a later influence on the Brooklyn bands of the early 21st century such as LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio and The Rapture.
As the night approaches Liquid Liquid’s the bouncing funk bass line from ‘Cavern’ slides in and out of focus, a ghostly voice in Basquiat’s sub-conscious. The bass line would bridge the gap between the no wave guitar scene and hip-hop when it was sampled by Grandmaster Flash for ‘White Lines’, one of the first commercially successfully hip-hop tracks. The film further captures the roots of hip-hop, in a sequence where Basquiat happens upon graffiti pioneers Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones spray-painting a new ‘commission’ on a wall. He descends some stairs next to them into a small hip-hop club where Cool Kyle is rapping over Blondie’s new wave groove ‘Rapture’ and a small group of people dance. Offering an early glimpse into hip-hop culture, it shows the then revolutionary method of a DJ spinning two records in tandem, keeping the beat in a continuous loop.
When the film was re-edited in the late nineties, the early hip-hop classic ‘Beat Bop” by Rammlezee Vs K-Rob was added over the end credits. It is linked to the film by Basquiat, who was originally meant to battle on the track with Rammlezee, a rival graffiti artist and an open critic of Basquiat’s ascent into the art world’s elite. Although he didn’t end up rapping on the song, Basquiat funded the recording earning him a production credit. He also designed the iconic artwork for the original limited edition pressing, which now sells for thousands of dollars amongst collectors. The track remains a unique production, featuring discordant strings, ambient noise over minimal electro grooves as the rappers trade rhymes in heightened fake voices. It was an important influence on the next generation of rappers, including the Beastie Boys, who would use the boastful rhymes and high-pitched delivery as the basis of a mean and lean style of rapping.
The film tangentially breaks focus from Basquiat for two stories which each criticize the corporate music industry and the mainstream pop orientated media. Firstly, it follows depressive musician Walter Stedding delivering a withering monologue living in poverty, ripped off by promoters, carrying equipment in and out of venues on his own. Finally he gets signed by a coked up A&R man who offers him a contract with dubious small print. Stedding appears at the Mudd Club towards the end of the movie performing ‘New Day’ in an elevator, which moves up and down as he plays. The Mudd Club, was along with CBGBs the birthplace and refuge of the New York punk scene, where a who’s who of glitterati, including Bowie and Andy Warhol, would regularly show up to witness the explosion of new experimental bands.
The second digression features Glenn O’Brien as a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor probing the Japanese new wave band The Plastics with prejudiced questions; ‘ was it hard to learn Japanese when you were young’, ‘do you dream in English?’. Their track ‘Copy’ sounds like music from an early eighties arcade machine as ‘Game Over’ flashes across the screen, while lyrically it’s self-referential of Japan’s obsession with American pop culture.
In the last act of the movie, Basquiat, still in search of Beatrice, bribes a limo chauffeur with a joint to drive him up to the front of a nightclub. Inside Kid Creole and the Coconuts play a mix of uptight New York funk grooves, with big band brass arrangements and nursery rhyme backing vocal melodies from scantily clad backing singers. Kid Creole’s carnival of music, was devised by August Darnel (who dressed in 1930’s style ‘Zoot suits’) and his flamboyant foil Coati Mundi, who soaked up the sounds from the native and immigrant cultures that co-existed in New York; from Latin American, Jamaican, to American swing music.
Reaching the end of his own yellow brick road, the film ends with Basquiat coming upon a bag lady (Debbie Harry) in a dark alleyway, who turns into a princess after he kisses her. In return she grants his wish, a suitcase full of cash, which he uses to buy a car to drive through the streets until dawn. As the sun returns to the bludgeoned lower east side Suicide’s romantic elegy ‘Cheree’ provides an uplifting finish with heir combination of rockabilly vocals and melodies with synths and drum machines. This mix of lyrical innocence with then modern electronic textures re-assimilated fifties culture for the eighties generation.
Downtown 81 represents Manhattan’s last stand as a beatnik haven for creatively driven impoverished artists, a moment where everyone was connected in one giant electrical circuit creating their own cultural power. Removed from its New York roots, hip-hop resonated around the world to become both the commercially successful and significant cultural movement it is well known for being today. The no wave scene, which married experimentalism with punk attitude, created a DIY manifesto for the explosion of independent labels and bands in the eighties that would challenge the significance of the major record labels. With Basquiat as the lightning rod, Downtown 81 caught the seeds of a burgeoning group of artists and musicians finding refuge in run down areas with cheap rents to cultivate their work. They signaled a new generation of artists, grown out from the dirt and dust of the streets of the lower east side.
– Tom Jarvis