Downtown 81 Movie Review
Yes, that's right! There's an empty space in the middle where the word "SPACE" should be. Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back, because it's pretentious and means absolutely nothing. The same can be said for some of the artists, filmmakers, performers, and musicians from NYC's downtown scene in the early '80s, where anyone with this kind of lingo could be a great artist if Andy Warhol or [Insert Pretentious Mover, Shaker, Coffee Drinker's Name Here] said so. Do you really think we'd be talking about Jean Michel Basquiat if Warhol hadn't shined a spotlight on him? More to the point, do you really think we'd be talking about Basquiat if Julian Schnabel's (admittedly pretty enjoyable [Not! -Ed.]) movie hadn't made him into a romantic myth?
Along comes Edo Bertoglio's Downtown 81, originally called New York Beat Movie. This supremely awful and compulsively watchable 72-minute featurette is making its world theatrical premiere after missing parts of the film (lost in Europe, my dears) were rediscovered in 1998. Watch the 19-year old Basquiat, playing himself, wander the Lower East Side for 24 hours in search of -- what? Some miracle to pay the rent with $500 he doesn't have. With a painting tucked under his arm, this young artiste pounds the Lower East Side pavement encountering various trendsetters from the early '80s, ducks into various clubs, paints some graffiti throughout urbania, and says faux-witty things in voice-over like, "Sometimes you feel like life is killing you."
Much of the time, Downtown 81 is supremely boring and steeped in a low budget variation of mystical '80s excess. Basquiat himself is handsome but vapid, a sounding board for philosophical drivel that gives tortured, penniless artists a bad name. If it weren't for the beautiful representation of a disenfranchised neighborhood, back in a time when downtown meant burnt out factory buildings around every corner and a sea of grungy street life meandering around every corner, it'd be simply insufferable. Yet there's something to be said for movies as time capsules, representing the textures, colors, filth and flimsiness of New York during a time where artists were pushing boundaries and breaking new ground with punk rock, experimental film, disturbing art -- a decaying, angry mirror to the Reagan years. (Amos Poe, who has a small role in Downtown 81, was among the filmmakers at this time making far sharper filmic representations of the climate, though I don't see any commercial doors opening up for The Foreigner, his collaboration with Eric Mitchell. Instead, we get Edo Bertogio's love letter to Basquiat.)
In addition to the vivid portrait of city streets and shitty taxi cabs, crowded art clubs and braying landlords, there is a vibrant and eclectic blend of diverse music found in Downtown 81. Onscreen (in club scenes and rehearsal rooms seen through the glazed eyes of Basquiat) is the tacky excess of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, complete with dancing girls on the sidelines doing the herky-jerky "bad dancing" we remember from the early, early days of MTV. Then there's the power trio, DNA, who walk back and forth playing their guitars and drums with nary a care in the world. (Screw you if you don't like it, they imply.) The Plastics, a gonzo Japanese band, epitomize the best and worst of new wave in their "shiny shopping bag of mania" performance. How else would you describe them? Huh? Huh? Thought so!
Not seen live but livening up the soundtrack are Melle Mel (yes!), John Lurie of Lounge Lizards fame, Lydia Lunch, Suicide, and Vincent Gallo. If Edo Bertoglio had decided instead to stuff this truly radical mix of performers in the same room and turn the cameras on, he might have had something truly special. Downtown 81 is a better mix tape than a movie -- expect the soundtrack to clutter the shelves of Virgin Megastore right next to the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash -- all lined up in a neat little row! I'm never gonna stop throwing up. These bands were radicals at one time, but I would hate to meet the crowd that's gonna buy this shit at Virgin. Doesn't that defeat the whole intention? Has everything become co-opted? I digress, but someone's gotta say it!
The posters for Basquiat -- I mean, Downtown 81, are gonna tell you it's "New York the way it was...when it was...." Fair enough, but all I have to say is: where the hell is perpetual blowhard Rockets Redglare? And if you don't know who that is, this ain't the movie for you.
Aka New York Beat Movie.
Spot the artist.