Before I ever lived in New York, I always had a fascination with it. Particularly the music scene in the ’70s and ’80s. Punk, in many ways, was born in New York. After its inception, the music continued to grow into a larger, weirder community. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was dangerous, dirty, and, most importantly, a wellspring of artistic activity. Not only from musicians but for filmmakers, such as Richard Kern, Beth B, and Jim Jarmusch (just to name a few out of many) and artists, the superstar amongst them being Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat came up from nothing but eventually became the darling of the art world.
“He discovers upon returning to his apartment that he’s been evicted. So he goes out on the street with his painting, hoping to sell it…”
Downtown 81 has been on my radar for years. The film was originally released in 2000, even though it was made in ’80-’81 (hence the name, which was originally New York Beat), but I didn’t see it until ’05 or ’06. It was written and produced by the host of TV Party, a legendary New York City public access show which showcased the talents of the Downtown music scene, the late Glenn O’Brien. O’Brien also wrote a column for Interview magazine entitled “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat,” and the movie was a way for O’Brien to showcase the bands he was championing in the column.
Rather than just shoot a straight concert documentary, which would have been cool enough on its own, O’Brien wrote a LES fairy tale. Downtown 81 follows a fictionalized version of Basquiat (still named Jean), who has just left the hospital after a long stay. He discovers upon returning to his apartment that he’s been evicted. So he goes out on the street with his painting, hoping to sell it to get back into his apartment and also find a model named Beatrice (Anna Schroeder).
"…as a music fan, particularly a fan of punk and post-punk, that Downtown 81 is essential viewing..."