Downtown 81



Here’s a curio. Filmed on NYC’s Lower East Side in 1980-81, this slender fable follows a day in the life of a young graffiti artist and musician during his peregrinations through a now-vanished boho-land. As a fiction feature, it’s a notch below amateurish: The editing is clumsy; the acting is atrocious and the post-dubbing (or redubbing, since most of the original sound track was lost) is the worst this side of late-period Orson Welles. But, as a documentary of a particular place and time, it has moments of interest for fans of that era’s music and the added curiosity value of having the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the lead.

Unlike the naive stoner portrayed in the 1996 bio-pic Basquiat, the real Jean-Michel (redubbed by actor Sam Williams) comes across as an amiable hustler who’s honed his nonchalance into an expressive playfulness, a charismatic presence in a milieu where it’s difficult to separate the genuinely talented from the would-be mental patients who have found a legal outlet for their urge to express and/or display themselves. And he gives good face — the camera loves him.

The half-hearted plot has Basquiat pursuing a Mystery Woman, a lame premise spiced by brief performance bits by the likes of Tuxedomoon, DNA (with the great Arto Lindsay deep in his skronk phase) and James White and The Blacks (there’s a cool sequence with Chance walking into a dance crowd blowing his Ayler-ish sax). Meanwhile our hero commits supposedly cute acts of scamp art (such as defacing the Mystery Woman’s rather expensive-looking Man Ray photography book when she isn’t around), has digressive street encounters, gets his band equipment stolen, hangs out at the Mudd Club. All this and a dozen or so cameos that will be of great interest to anyone who’s obsessively read every issue of Interview magazine since its inception. For the rest of us, it may seem like a time capsule prematurely opened.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Visit the official Downtown 81 Web site at

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at

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