I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Time Capsule of Early 1980s NYC’s Lower East Side or, “New York’s Alright (If You Like Basquiat)”: Downtown 81

by Ryk McIntyre
May 23, 2013

Watching this movie made me sad, to be honest. Not for any reason attached to the film, its stars or its story, but rather for the window into a past New York City that I remember but that just isn’t there anymore. Set autobiographically in the early 1980s post-punk splendor that was the dirty, sinful, dangerous and irresistible Lower East Side of New York City, Downtown 81 (directed by Edo Betoglio, writtenproduced by Glenn O’Brien) tells the story of superstar artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and his 24 hour quest for $422.60.

The film starts with Jean-Michel Basquiat coming to in a hospital, following some kind of accident/injury/disease. We never find out, but its not really germane to the story. Thwarted from returning to his apartment by his landlord (played by Giorgio Gomelsky, whom you might not know was the Yardbird’s old manager, but he was) due to back rent, Jean-Michel wanders the streets looking for a buyer for a painting, which would pay off his debts. In real life, Basquiat was functionally homeless, either staying with friends or at the places of women he’d meet and pick up in clubs. In fact, during the filming Busqaiat stayed in the production offices. 

The charm of the movie, other than Basquiat’s even-keeled float through the plot, is how it mirrors the freshness, the D.I.Y., the sheer fuck-it-let’s-do-it! spirit of the time, when the energy of punk rock hooked up with the hipness of art students and literally anything could happen because people were open to anything. The film itself has an “every take is a first take because we only have enough money for this much film” goofy, amateurish brilliance that reminds me of early music video efforts, back before it became the multi-billion dollar business that effectively helped destroy the music it claims to promote.

The film stars, costars and cameos so many of the prominent artists and personalities of the scene at the time, including Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White & the Blacks, graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy (in his original element, an apartment party, rapping over the DJ mixing and scratching), musician Arto Lindsay and artist Walter Steding, to name just a few. Debby Harry plays a bag-lady that is really “a princess trapped under a spell” who gets Jean-Michel to kiss her. You think this would all go bad, right you post-ironics? Well, it doesn’t. In the best cheap-ass special effect available at the time and on this budget, the bag-lady actually does become a princess. And she awards her rescuer with a big pile of cash. 

The rest of the film is like a guided tour through the pulse-beating heart of NYC’s Lower East side at the time, before certain mayors came in and ruined everything by swapping the whores and live-sex shows for Disney stores. All this set to the tune of what was the music of the time: in addition to the afore mentioned Kid Creole and James White we have the Lounge Lizards, DNA, Tuxedomoon, Lydia Lunch, the Specials, and my favorites – Suicide.

The film received fairly warm response from the critics at Cannes 2000. In particular, it was the films loose-documentary style and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s smooth, underplayed delivery. Maybe under-rehearsed, I don’t know... it’s the kind of film for anyone who wants reminisce of a lost Lower East Side of three decades gone. Which is different from remembering, because if you say you were in the clubs of NYC at the time, and you actually remember it, chances are you were never really there, and are just making stuff up. For instance, I can tell you about seeing a lot of music in NYC in the late 1970s/early 1980s – bands like Television, Blondie, Mink Deville, the Dictators, Talking Heads, Suicide, Nash the Slash... I just can’t really tell you exactly where or specifically when. Which proves I was there at this amazing time in cultural history. I think... The me back then would give this film two thumbs up. As soon as he remembered where he left his thumbs...

Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals.  He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.