Song from a Vanished New York: Edo Bertoglio’s “Downtown 81”
Downtown 81 merges the innocent with the ghostly. A tour of New York’s post-punk art and music scenes with Jean-Michel Basquiat basically playing himself, it was shot in 1981 by the Swiss-born director Edo Bertoglio but not edited and completed till 1999 and released in 2000. By that point, Basquiat was long dead. The New York it depicted had become a much-mythologized nostalgia object. (The soundtrack offered a rare opportunity to hear Gray, Basquiat and Vincent Gallo’s rock band.) When Bertoglio began post-production, the tapes containing the actors’ voices had been lost (although not the music, thankfully). Thus, Basquiat’s voiceover is actually delivered by Saul Williams. The dubbing is obvious, even where actors do their own voices, and not always expertly synched, creating a slightly hollow effect.
Debbie Harry introduces the film by stating “the story you are about to see isn’t true, but it isn’t false either.” Seen now, it combines the scuzz that has come to define punk-era New York — Basquiat walks past abandoned lots that look like post-WW II Berlin and rejects the approaches of heroin dealers as he strolls through the Lower East Side — with a frank embrace of fantasy. The performances lean towards caricature. For instance, a music industry sleazebag shares cocaine in a bathroom with singer/violinist Walter Steding while explaining why he won’t sign him.
Downtown 81 plays like a musical. At one point, Basquiat, accompanied by artist and future Yo! MTV Raps host Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, walks into a club where rapper Kid Kyle is performing. He incorporates their presence into his lyrics. Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tuxedomoon, DNA, the Plastics, and James White and the Blacks are shown playing entire songs. But Bertoglio doesn’t let the audience simply enjoy the music, breaking it up with comic scenes. Downtown 81 cuts between the Plastics’ performance of “Copy” and their awkward interview with a nerdy music critic (played by screenwriter Glenn O’Brien).
To put it bluntly, Downtown 81 is rather amateurish. One can tell that Bertoglio was aiming to make something more polished than No Wave films by Vivienne Dick, Beth and Scott B, and James Nares, but he didn’t quite get there. The film originated in an article about the New York music scene written in 1980 by O’Brien, who frequently contributed to Interview magazine and hosted the public access show TV Party (1978–1982). Bertoglio, whose background lay in fashion photography, had real connections. The soundtrack was recorded in a mobile studio borrowed from the Rolling Stones. Executive producer Michael Zilkha co-founded the indie label ZE Records (for which Kid Creole and James White recorded).
But the fact that we can tell that its performers weren’t professional actors gives it a sense of reality, especially since Basquiat isn’t the only member of its cast who died young. Downtown 81 captures a moment in New York culture that ended quickly. When Basquiat’s art career took off, he abandoned his interest in music. (In the film’s early scenes, he walks around with a clarinet, and Rammellzee vs. K-Rob’s eccentric hip-hop song “Beat Bop,” which he produced and played violin on, blasts over the closing credits). Tim Lawrence’s book, Life and Death on the Dance Floor, describes the political significance of the social and cultural mixture of the period Downtown 81 shows, in which Afrika Bambaataa could hang out at punk clubs and wind up inspired by Kraftwerk, while the rock band Liquid Liquid, whose “Cavern” is played in the film, borrowed from sources as different as Bo Diddley, Latin music, and No Wave (and eventually got sampled on Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”).
Without making a major point of it, Downtown 81 documents a period in which class and racial boundaries were far more diffuse than the present. It was hardly a utopia: the plot kicks off with Basquiat getting evicted because he doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent. (His landlord won’t accept the painting he offers in lieu of cash.) Later, Basquiat hangs out with a model who makes more in one day than he does in one year. DNA, James White and the Blacks, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts all featured inter-racial lineups. Although the Plastics were Japanese, the film simply presents them as part of New York’s music scene. It doesn’t pretend that its world is free from racist stereotypes — O’Brien’s journalist asks the Plastics if they found it hard to learn Japanese, which is odd considering that it’s their native language, and a few other similarly dubious questions based around their supposed exoticism.
Life and Death on the Dance Floor suggests that a combination of gentrification, hard drugs, AIDS, and soaring fame for a select handful of artists from this scene doomed it. Metrograph Films’ decision to re-release Downtown 81 theatrically brings it back to life. While it’s certainly a flawed film, there’s far more truth here than in the way images of “dark, menacing New York” are now used as an empty device akin to an Instagram filter in recent movies (most gratingly in Joker ). Watching it in 2019 elicits a sense of lost potential more than nostalgia.
Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 screens at Metrograph starting on October 25.
All stills courtesy Metrograph Pictures/Edo Bertoglio.