“Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created,” Keith Haring stated after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s death. Basquiat, the much-praised artist who was 27 when he passed away, was given his first art supplies by the production team of Downtown 81, the cult classic written by Glenn O’Brien and directed by Edo Bertoglio, primarily because they needed his character, Jean, to carry around a painting to sell.
While there are several documentaries on Basquiat, Downtown 81 is not a film one should watch to learn more about his life and works. It is, however, a New York City fairy tale where after a day of toil and crime, something magical happens; a beautiful amalgamation of fact and fiction as the real yet-unknown Jean-Michel merges into Jean, the painter from Lower East Side who needs to sell a painting to make rent. Following its premiere in 2000, the film played at the Museum of Modern Art and in a revived homecoming tour of sorts, is set for theatrical runs at New York’s Metrograph and BAM.
In late 1980 and early 1981, when the film was shot, New York City was just beginning to emerge from the financial crises of the 1970s. The Lower East Side stood amidst the torched remains of fires that had gutted the city’s redlined areas, and at the precipice of the gentrification that would drive most artists and filmmakers out of the neighborhood. Fashion designer Maripol, the film’s producer, wanted to make a film about this period because she knew it wasn’t going to last.
There is a certain exhilaration in the film, a sense of holding one’s breath in anticipation of a big change, a moment of immense potential and lingering bittersweet nostalgia. A time capsule that holds the legendary Basquiat in immortal youth, Downtown 81 also preserves a certain New York, which has now changed beyond recognition. In one day, Jean walks from the Upper East Side and the Guggenheim Museum to a midtown populated by porn parlors and finally into downtown — the antithesis of the Guggenheim — thriving with broke artists, musicians, and drug dealers. In the evening, he drops into legendary, now disappeared, night clubs like Howard Stein’s Rock Lounge, Peppermint Lounge, and the Mudd Club to watch No Wave musicians like Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Coati Mundi, James White and the Blacks, and Walter Steding and the Dragon People perform. For him, it’s just another night with friends; for younger generations, it’s a glimpse of a New York they’ve only read about. Cameos of people like Basquiat’s Gray bandmate Michael Holman, hip hop and graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy, graffiti artist Lee Quinones litter the narrative and set the audience on a curious “guess this 80s underground legend” chase.
After a six week shoot, the film (then called New York Beat) was completed in April 1981 and later lost thanks to a long and complex tussle involving Italian producers and a FreeMason scandal that included a prime minister, military leaders, clergymen and businessmen. When the film was finally salvaged in 1999, the audio tapes couldn’t be found so Maripol tracked down everyone who appeared in it, to come back and record their bits. The poet Saul Williams stepped in to dub Basquiat’s lines, after the artist’s death in 1989.
While the legend of Basquiat looms over Downtown 81, the film remains a fruit of the collective labor of a community of artists living with the anxiety of significant impending changes. It’s perhaps not a magical portal but an always-open, inviting one that promises a journey to a lost city of artists and roadside fairies where Basquiat sits on a chair, drawing on Man Ray portraits with a Sharpie.