Shot in 1980-81 and completed last year, Downtown 81 is a fiction feature whose story is as slight as it is disjointed. When penniless downtown artist Jean-Michel (Jean-Michel Basquiat) is kicked out of his apartment, he wanders the streets until he finds an art patron who gives him a check. Unable to cash it, the painter walks a lot more streets as he journeys to the neighborhood clubs, where he hears a lot of music, hopes to score some cash and shelter, and helps his musician pals. In lame attempts at subplots, there are also murky complications involving some stolen instruments, an elusive model and a questionable record executive.
Downtown 81 stars late art-world sensation Basquiat as himself and delivers a breezy riff on his real-life early struggle to make it as a painter. Flimsy as a work of fiction (even voice-overs fail to sew together or embroider the narrative patchwork), the film succeeds more as documentary and concert film. There are plentiful shots of downtown New York in the early 1980s that will have knowing natives misty-eyed. And the bountiful scenes of club performances from the likes of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, DNA, James White and the Blacks, The Plastics, etc. will be music to their ears.
Art enthusiasts can bask in Basquiat's ubiquity as screen hero and in scenes of him applying his famous graffiti to select walls. Graying cognoscenti will appreciate rare looks at such downtown scenesters as Maripol, Glenn O'Brien, and the late Cookie Mueller, who, like Basquiat, battled drugs.
As much a celebration of the downtown denizens, Downtown 81 is a paean to funky neighborhoods before gentrification and gritty, neon-flecked streets before SUVs. The film, whose mantra might be "Only create, only enjoy," also celebrates an era in its evocation of the dizzying anything-goes, anything-can-happen early '80s before the AIDS epidemic pulled the plug. Shot in 16mm and video, the film also recalls the days of fearless guerrilla filmmaking by art obsessed rebels struggling in an era before mom, pop, dentists and rich uncles pitched in.
Thus, the nostalgia-loaded Downtown 81 is perfect product for downtown-skewing venues anywhere that attract the hip, arty and curious. Such a film made these days probably would not get past Sundance. But here the past, if not perfect, is satisfying enough.