Of course, there’s so much more to the film than this. It’s a very important historical document for the history of New York’s arts and music scene. This film was made before Basquiat became the international success he became for his untimely death in 1988. He was homeless at the time of filming, just like the character he plays. He stayed in the production office and worked on paintings. The film was released in 2000 due to financial problems. All the dialogue audio was lost, so Basquiat’s narration of the film is overdubbed by Saul Williams. Fortunately, none of the performance audio was lost.
“…the movie was a way for O’Brien to showcase the bands he was championing in the column.”
It’s quite special if you’re a fan of Basquiat’s to see him spray paint on New York City walls, as that lead to his discovery. With that comes a barrage of talent from the post-punk/no-wave scene that was all the rage at the time Downtown 81 was made. DNA, James Chance (in his band James White and the Blacks), Tuxedo Moon, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, and The Plastics. Music by James Chance and the Contortions, The Lounge Lizards, The Specials, Suicide, and many other bands play in the background. Debbie Harry plays a bag-lady turned fairy princess. There are cameos by Fab Five Freddy, Amos Poe, Debbie Mazar, John Lurie, Bobby Grossman, Roberta Bayley, Tish & Snookie Bellomo, Glenn O’Brien himself and many, many, many more.
I think as a music fan, particularly a fan of punk and post-punk, that Downtown 81 is essential viewing. I think we’re all very lucky that Metrograph Pictures and Vulture decided to re-release this film to a new audience of people who weren’t around for the scene that brought the film forth. It’s a weird little gem of a film that I’m so glad O’Brien and director Edo Bertoglio made almost 40 years ago now. I’m even more glad that it wasn’t lost as it could’ve been, and we can all learn about a scene everyone (myself very much included) wishes they could’ve been a part of.