08. May 2018

Message in a bottle from the 1980s, wandering the streets of New York with Jean-Michel Basquiat. The film Downtown 81 was shot before Basquiat’s big breakthrough, but it was not released until much later.

By Daniel Urban

„Fairy tales can come true“, we are promised during the opening credits of „Downtown 81“. The story that is about to follow, the speaker goes on to say, may not be based on fact, but at the same time it is far from being untrue. The tale is set in 1980s New York, on the Lower East Side to be more precise, which at the time was still a rather adventurous neighborhood that only a few years earlier had been stirred up by the Punk scene. A short while before, in the early 1970s, the Hippie Punk David Peel had sung “We are from the Lower East Side, we don’t give a damn if we live or die.” Young “Jean” (Jean-Michel Basquiat) however no longer exudes this indifference.

Life has too much to offer. At the beginning of “Downtown 81” Jean-Michel awakens from a long slumber in a hospital. The doctor tells him “You’re cured,” yet we don’t find out what exactly ailed the protagonist. “Won’t see you again!” Jean hollers at the giggling nurses as he walks out of the hospital with a spring in his step and a clarinet in his hand.

A day in the life of Basquiat

“Downtown 81” can be best described as a kind of a-day-in-the-life-of movie: We track the young protagonist’s journey through town for an entire day. From the hospital in Upper Manhattan he makes his way on foot to the Lower East Side, meeting the model Beatrice (Anna Schroeder), whom he feels instantly drawn to, on the way; she gives him a ride to downtown Manhattan in her cabriolet. Upon arriving at home he encounters his landlord, who threatens to evict him for his rental arrears.

Oh boy, what a day!

The young artist hopes to get himself out of trouble by selling a painting he has produced himself. He walks the streets of New York, meeting famous personalities such as the graffiti artists Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quiñones, musicians including Deborah Harry and Arto Lindsay, and finds himself in clubs time and again, where we see extended scenes of live events by bands such as “Kid Creole and the Coconuts” or James White and the Blacks. In between he is also forced to go on a hunt for musical equipment that has been stolen from his band’s practice room, while looking out for model Beatrice in the meantime, with whom he hopes to be able to stay for a few nights. All of this leaves us thinking: Oh boy, what a day!

Strawling through the streets of NY with Basquiat

“Downtown 81” was shot in the winter of 1980/81, with Jean-Michel Basquiat just 19 years old and with his breakthrough in the arts scene yet to come. Screenplay writer and producer Glenn O’Brien made the young artist, who had previously been a guest on his television program “TV Party,” the lead of his film and based its narrative loosely on Basquiat’s life. It was originally to be titled “New York Beat” and young Jean’s story was simply meant to connect the elaborately filmed live performances that play a prominent role in the storyline.

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn O’Brien at TV Party, Image via: artnews.com

The film’s post-production took several years after shooting had been completed, and in the mid-1980s work on the movie was abandoned due to financial difficulties. In the end the post-production was only completed in 1999 by fashion designer Maripol Fauque, who had been director Edo Bertoglio’s girlfriend at the time of shooting. By that time all of the sound recordings made for the film, except those of the live music performances, had been lost, which meant that all of the dialogue needed to be retrospectively dubbed. The musician and poet Saul Williams then spoke Basquiat’s part over ten years after the artist’s death. The film was finally released in 2000 under the title “Downtown 81.”

A bottle post from the 80s

“Downtown 81” is first and foremost a fascinating and impressive contemporary document of the New York No-Wave years. Like a message in a bottle from the 1980s, it shows us a city that could not be further removed from Rudolph Giuliani’s New York of the 1990s, when the mayor’s law & order politics changed the face of the city forever. We hear a voiceover of Jean philosophizing “It can be a jungle and it can be a paradise, too” as he makes his way through the dilapidated Lower East Side.

It can be a jungle and it can be a paradise, too.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81
Edo Bertoglio, Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81, 1980–81, © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Edo Bertoglio

Despite the circumstances Basquiat, who had spent most of 1980 without a permanent place of residence in New York, took rather naturally to playing in “Downtown 81” the part of the artist he hadn’t quite yet become at this point in time. His fellow band member Michael Holman found it striking how the film prophesied Jean’s ascent to stardom without intending to do so. The paintings Basquiat made for the movie were some of his first artworks. After the wrap he sold one of them to Blondie singer Debbie Harry for just 100 dollars – in the film she plays a “fairy godmother”-type character who hands young Jean a suitcase full of money after a kiss. “Luck is really findable” the artist concludes, hardly surprised, in “Downtown 81.” And indeed, in real life Jean-Michel Basquiat would become an art-world star just a few months later.