DOWNTOWN 81 is a feature film starring the legendary American artist Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988.) Basquiat was a 19 year old painter, graffiti artist, poet and musician when he played the lead in this film, which vividly depicts the explosive downtown New York art and music scene of 1980-81. Basquiat was an important figure on that scene. He had yet to have his first exhibition. But his paintings and words were part of the city landscape. Today, his paintings hang in museums and important collections around the world and he is internationally recognized as one of the most important artists of the late twentieth century.
The film is a day in the life of a young artist who needs to raise money to reclaim the apartment from which he has been evicted. He wanders the downtown streets carrying a painting he hopes to sell, encountering friends, whose lives (and performances) we peek into. He finally manages to sell his painting to a wealthy female admirer, but he’s paid by check. Low on cash, he spends the evening wandering from club to club, looking for a beautiful girl he had met earlier, so he’ll have a place to spend the night.
Basquiat is a natural actor – witty, radiant, the epitome of coolness and artistic exuberance. The cast includes Deborah Harry, and leading bands of the era including Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, DNA, Tuxedo Moon, the Plastics, and Walter Steding and the Dragon People. Also heard on the soundtrack are rap legend Melle Mel, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, Suicide, Vincent Gallo, Kenny Burrell and Basquiat’s own band, Gray.
Downtown 81 not only captures one of the most interesting and lively artists of the twentieth century as he is poised for fame, but it is a slice of life from one of the most exciting periods in American culture, with the emergence of new wave music, new painting, hip hop and graffiti.
Downtown 81 was shot in 1980-81. Originally titled ” New York Beat,” it was written and co-produced by the well known writer Glenn O’Brien, produced by Maripol, the art director and stylist, and directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio, all of whom were deeply involved in the art, music and fashion scenes of the time. The Director of photography was John McNulty, one of New York’s top lighting men, shooting his first feature.
The film is not a documentary, but presents a slightly exaggerated, romantic and magical version of the reality of the time. The entire cast is composed of the movers and shakers on the downtown scene. In 1981, business problems interrupted the completion of post-production, and parts of the film were lost in Europe. Finally after much searching, the missing materials were located in 1998. Post production was begun in 1999 and finished in 2000, supervised by Maripol and Glenn O’Brien and edited by director/editor Pamela French. Executive producer of the film is Michael Zilkha, whose Ze Records released recordings by severals of the bands in the film.
THE SOUNDTRACK includes music by: Gray, Jean Michel Basquiat with Andy Hernandez, John Lurie, DNA, Tuxedo Moon, the Plastics, Marvin Pontiac, Kenny Burrell, the Specials, Chris Stein, Melle Mel with Blondie, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, Vincent Gallo, Lydia Lunch, Steve French and Suicide.
DNA was recorded live at Vanguard Studios. TuxedoMoon was recorded live at Blank Tapes Studios. The live club performances were recorded on location using the RCA 24 track mobile unit.