“Downtown ’81” captures the NYC avant-garde scene’s triumphs and frustrations

Sunday, March 1, Chazen Museum of Art, 2 p.m., free.

Sunday, March 1, Chazen Museum of Art, 2 p.m., free. Info

While Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown ’81 (2000) may be seen as a cinematic curiosity that hones in on the nomadic avant-garde periphery of Manhattan in the early 1980s, the film withstands as an essential, humane document of artists’ struggles and reveries. Following street artist and musician Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mysterious hospitalization, the young neo-expressionist finds himself navigating the eccentricities of New York City as singer Saul Williams narrates his encounters from the chic clubs to back-alleys. His wanderings are compounded with the stress of attempting to pay his rent by selling one of his paintings and dealing with the aftermath of stolen music equipment.

The film, screening on a new 35mm print at the Chazen, was largely conceived by Warhol protégé Glenn O’Brien, who constructs the short feature like a beat poet tapestry of musical performances, beginning with MC Cool Kyle and ending on the avant-rock of Walter Steding And The Dragon People. The largely diegetic soundtrack is brimming with the No/New Wave rawness of lived-in anxiety that’s amalgamated with a jubilant, Leftist spirit, which is all absorbed into the film’s tonal daydreams. All speaking parts are dubbed slightly out-of-sync, so it feels like Basquiat is existing in the flesh and as an omniscient specter at once. Often, Downtown ’81 realizes the portrait of the artist’s trials and tribulations as fantastical escapism, like a chance interaction with Milanese model Beatrice (Anna Schroeder) who offers to take care of Basquiat for the rest of his days, or a Bag Lady (Blondie’s Debbie Harry), who asks him for a kiss that will transform her into a fairy princess.


Point of view may largely be confined to Basquiat’s alternatingly commonplace and fanciful travels, but the film does take a couple detours into the worlds of other artists like aforementioned violinist Walter Steding, who breaks the fourth wall to lament the musician’s lifestyle for its lack of autonomy and financial viability. In this section, Bertoglio and O’Brien cut to a hilariously hyperbolic dramatization involving Steding and a sneering cokehead of a record executive. What keeps Downtown ’81 centered, though, is its setting— an obvious creative haven for offbeat iconoclasts who relentlessly supported one another and pursued the interplay and intersection of disciplines. Many of the NYC artists featured, like Basquiat and Steding, excelled with visual ingenuity in addition to their DIY experiments in sound.

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