The downtown art scene in New York had an incredibly fertile period in the late 70's and early 80's when innovative visual artists and writers mingled with musicians and scenemakers to create a collage that reflected the divided but lively status of the gritty city at the time. One of the more celebrated artists from the period is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose life story formed the basis of a pretty unsatisfying feature film by Julian Schnabel in 1996. It turns out that Schnabel's film was wholly unnecessary anyway. Filmmaker Edo Bertoglio had already made a film starring the real Basquiat, depicting a slice of his life through a filter that mixed truth and fiction with fantasy and biography. That film, Downtown 81, however, fell victim to financing woes and wasn't completed until 2002. After this ridiculously long wait, however, Bertoglio and company have unveiled a really winning production. Downtown 81 features such an interesting, eclectic mix of styles that it manages to evoke its time very specifically without feeling dated at all. I don't know if it's the off-kilter personalities of the art crowd participants, Basquiat's own dropped-from-the-sky innocence, or the timelessness of the low-budget handheld camera, but the only thing that lets you know how old this film is is the crumbling decay of the city.
Starting off with Basquiat in the hospital (something that was a regular part of his life thanks to a chronic condition) the main thrust of the movie is just the artist's efforts to get through the next five minutes. He has no long-term plans, only knowing that he must get back downtown. He wanders uptown streets, passing the Guggenheim and pausing to blow his horn at the foot of the Empire State Building, but he isn't in his element until he hits the Lower East Side, with all its squalor intact (no couture boutiques yet in the neighborhood). He finds himself evicted from his apartment after trying to pass a painting off in lieu of backrent. Then it's just a question of wandering around, running into friends (like Fab Five Freddy and graffiti legend Lee Quinones, star of Wild Style, painting a semi-legal mural on a wall) and looking for a model who gave him a ride in her convertible. All sorts of silly vignettes later Basquiat meets Debbie Harry and ends up with an unlikely surprise.
Not much, I know, but at a short 71 minutes, it's all you need. Packed into that short running time is a collection of fantastic performances by groups like Kid Creole And The Coconuts, James White And The Blacks, The Plastics, as well as tons of unique flavor and dialog. The personality of the scene is the star, with grimy apartments, dark clubs, filthy streets and bare rehearsal studios the backdrop. The film has a fun momentum that grabs the viewer and stumbles through the adventure. It's amateurish filmmaking in a way, but it has heart.
The non-anamorphic video is ok, all things considered. No, it doesn't look like anything from modern technical standards, but this is a film whose negative sat in a lab for twenty years before the filmmakers had a chance to finish it. It's grainy, soft and a bit dull. But it's also perfect for its style. It's non-anamorphic widescreen.
The Dolby Stereo soundtrack is scratchy, as could be expected, but overall has a clear sound. The origins, like the video track, are modest but a nice job has been done to present this here.
This disc was clearly made by people who care. There is a wonderful collection of extras that truly enhances the experience. The commentary track from writer/co-producer Glenn O'Brien and producer Maripol is interesting, if a little insidery at times. But it does give a lot of additional detail on the film and the personalities involved. One moment I particularly liked was when O'Brien points out a bit player in the film and says "Everyone always thinks that's John Lurie. I don't know why." I too had thought it was Lurie when I watched the film earlier. I don't know. It just looks like him, I guess.
Footage of Basquiat on O'Brien's early 80's cable access show "TV Party" is a really great extra. The raw black-and-white look and the off-beat interview style really makes this an exceptional bit to accompany the film. Having grown up on no-budget Manhattan cable access weirdness, this really takes me back.
There are some "outtakes" from the film, almost all of which actually made the final cut (the term "outtake" is used liberally here) but they're accompanied by some atmospheric music by Basquiat's band Gray, which is good to get to hear.
"Afterthought," a short interview with the filmmakers created by the Sundance Channel is also a cool addition. One of the best extras, however, is an interactive map of Manhattan with many of the film's locations linking to little bits of information. A very cool extra that I'd love to see on more location-specific releases.
An excellent selection of photos from the scene is also included, displaying a lot of famous faces.
This is an immensely watchable and likeable film. Basquiat really holds the screen with his understated presence and the peppering of the film with great music and unique personalities really helps it overcome whatever "smallness" the story might exhibit. What makes it even better is the terrific treatment on this DVD. I only wish all my favorite unknown films would get such loving treatment.