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“Downtown ’81” Movie Review by Daniel Barnes

Downtown 81 documentary

Downtown ’81 (2000; Edo Bertoglio)


By Daniel Barnes

Opens on Friday, Nov. 1, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

You can’t slice this thing open without rattling off the rich backstory, so here we go.  Swiss director Edo Bertoglio shot Downtown ’81 in the early 1980s under the working title of New York Beat Movie.  The aborted project starred Jean-Michel Basquiat as a version of himself roaming the streets of Manhattan.  Producer Glenn O’Brien bought back the rights in 1999, and the film finally got finished and released in 2000.  Although the soundtrack didn’t survive (Saul Williams voices Basquiat), the live performances by Mudd Club bands like DNA remained intact.

The intermittently electric result plays like a hybrid concert documentary, genre parody and art film fairy tale.  Downtown ’81 follows Basquiat from a hospital bed through his encounters with a variety of Lower East Side characters.  Basquiat is a natural screen presence, and the film captures the artist in his element.  It’s a far more compelling portrait than Sara Driver offered in last year’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“I was free, but the city wasn’t.”

Basquiat’s narration swerves between neo-noir patter and spoken word poetry, just as the scenes drift along with little context or connection.  The story follows Basquiat, homeless at the time, as his “character” gets evicted and tries to sell a painting.  He gets picked up by a femme fatale, falls for another femme fatale, and then there’s a nonsensical mystery that goes nowhere.

However, it’s all filler between the live performances, which include a bizarre, racially and sexually charged performance from King Creole and the Coconuts. The enduring appeal of Downtown ’81 lies in its display of a bygone post-punk, pre-hip-hop era, no matter how affected a version it presents.  Through the Lower East Side “war zone” flits the likes of Fab Five Freddy, Lee Quinones and “Deborah Harry.”  Meanwhile, Basquiat compulsively creates art wherever he goes.  “I could see the handwriting on the wall,” he says.  “It was mine.”

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.