In 1980, writer and Warhol associate Glenn O’Brien, Swiss photographer Edo Bertoglio, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti innovator and noise music artist who’d just begun to exhibit his paintings, hit the streets of lower Manhattan to make a movie about the bombed-out bohemia they lived and breathed. Left unfinished due to assorted legal and financial issues until it was fully assembled for release in 2000, Downtown 81 follows Basquiat, a naturally compelling screen presence, as he tries to hawk a painting (one of the artist’s own first works) while hustling for a place to sleep. So what was meant to be a document of its time instead became a window into a long-lost world of life on the margins and creative ferment—and it feels especially potent today, when NYC had transformed into an artless ghost town, before escalating racial injustices brought people back to the streets. The film features appearances by John Lurie, Fab 5 Freddy, and Debbie Harry; musical performances by DNA, James White and the Blacks, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts; and, most remarkable of all, a portrait of a more innocent Manhattan in all its mangy glory.
A Metrograph Pictures release.