‘Downtown 81’: A walking tour of the old, gritty NYC, with Basquiat

This wispy, breezy study in hipster affectlessness was directed by Edo Bertoglio circa 1981 but wasn’t released for 19 years, by which time it had become a fascinating time capsule of a bygone NYC. The movie follows a very young Jean-Michel Basquiat (!) around the Lower East Side as he sells a painting to a rich older woman who’s smitten with him, staves off the landlord who’s hassling him, meets up with his band in their rehearsal space, and pulls an amusing scam to get past the doorman of a popular club.

It’s all very slight, and starts to feel long even with a running time of just 73 minutes. Cultural archeology is the main reason to watch the movie: if you have no interest in this particular scene, the meandering pace, pretentious narration and blank nonacting could drive you crazy. (There’s some painful dubbing, too.)

But the shots of Basquiat sauntering around Alphabet City and thereabouts are compelling. Today it’s easy to forget just how bombed-out parts of the pre-Giuliani Manhattan looked, and how the city’s decline once seemed irrevocable, a given. Basquiat strolls past ruins that today you’d need a team of CGI artists to construct. Dealers and prostitutes casually hail him, making no attempt to hide what their business is out on the street. The cityscape is astonishing at times; this viewer can recall what it was like to walk around NYC as a kid visiting from suburban Connecticut in those years, eyes goggling at buildings that had fallen into a state of ruin — only no one else on the street seemed to make anything of them.

With its young musicians and artists who hustle to get by in cramped apartments and seedy neighborhoods, Downtown 81 is like the anti–Sex and the City as far as depictions of New York. And yet the movie isn’t quite the work of gritty realism it might appear to be at first glance. The New York here is not forbidding but inviting, less urban nightmare than a fable where the Lower East Side is akin to a village of like-minded hipsters, everybody working on something cool.

Basquiat never breaks a sweat as he passes through, a hint of surprising amiability, even sweetness, occasionally breaking through his surface detachment. (He was only 21 here, his struggles with drugs still in the future.)

One sequence stands out from the rest: a digression that shows how a poor, hard-working musician gets screwed by club owners and record labels is notably more sardonic, and carefully worked out, than the rest of the movie. The staging suddenly becomes near-satirical, rather than verité-style, almost like an old Harvey Kurtzman Mad comic brought to life. Presumably screenwriter Glenn O’Brien (long a fixture of this downtown scene, like virtually everyone who appears on screen) had a trove of real-life experiences, his own or those of his acquaintances, to draw from, and plenty to say about the subject of how bands couldn’t get a break. The movie snaps to life here.

In keeping with the knowing, insider’s view of the music scene of the time, Downtown 81 has quite a few cameos from downtown luminaries who never went mainstream, Blondie’s Debbie Harry excepted. After the historical curiosity of watching a now-vanished Lower East Side, the music numbers are the main reason to watch the film today.

This being 1981, the prevailing style is New Wave just before the advent of MTV — it’s five minutes before the ‘80s went all gaudy, glitzy and hyper-commercialized. The music draws from punk and funk, with the bands determined to avoid FM-rock clichés in their songs, mainly by leaving things out. What I think of as the negative space in the music keeps it edgy, and often from sounding dated at all, as if these musicians could be gigging in Williamsburg in any year of this past decade. The music here never broke big, which meant it never became overexposed, either.

Blondie, “Rapture” 45, January 1981.

The dance music of James Chance and the Contortions is wound tight, neurotic-sounding rather than feel-good. Kid Creole (a.k.a. August Darnell) is much more expansive and crowd pleasing; both acts are fun to watch.

Most entertaining is an all-too-brief snippet of first-generation rapper Fab 5 Freddy, whose name is probably familiar to most people from the shout-out to him in Blondie’s then-contemporary hit “Rapture.” Fittingly, Blondie singer Debbie Harry appears here as a magical Fairy Godmother, sweet and protective toward Basquiat. (Harry would have been at the height of her fame at the time, Blondie being the only one of the legendary CBGB’s bands to go on to sustained Top 10 success.)

However ruined or just crappy whole city blocks here might look, the scene feels fertile; there’s a lot going on. Studying the end credits, it’s revealing to see that almost everyone who has a speaking part in the movie is, or was, a “name,” some small but undeniable part of this scene’s history. Obviously no one on screen has any inkling of what a status-obsessed island of the rich Manhattan will become, not too far off in the future.

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