Downtown 81 :
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Reviewed by Wilson Morales
Long before Jeffrey Wright made his first film as the renowned artist Basquiat (1996), a film originally shot in 1980-81 starring the real Jean Michel Basquiat was lost somewhere in Europe. That film, then called “New York Beat Movie, “has now resurfaced as “Downtown 81”. It’s not a great film, but rather disjointed as nothing really makes sense. But considering this is the only glimpse one would ever see of Basquiat before he was discovered by Andy Warhol, this film is somewhat of a masterpiece, as it brings back memories of New York City in the early 80s when graffiti, rock music, and art ruled.
The film starts with Basquiat waking up in a hospital. No reason is given why he’s there, he just leaves. As he walks through the streets of NYC, a stranger named Beatrice (Anna Schroeder) in a convertible gives him a lift to his apartment. His landlord has locked him out due to unpaid rent of $500. Basquiat manages to get in when he convinces the landlord the money is inside his room. When Basquiat offers a painting as barter for his rent, the landlord throws him out. Walking through the Lower East Side, Basquiat searches for ways to sell his painting. He goes to nightclubs, talks to different bands. He manages to sell some of his works to a rich eccentric middle-aged woman who wants more than his paintings. Instead of cash, she gives him a check, which for Basquiat, is no good. Later on, he meets a bag lady (Deborah Harry) who begs him for a kiss. When he complies, she turns into a princess and gives him a stack of cash. Throughout the film, different bands are performing their music.
The film almost feels like an Ed Wood picture. Different plots are thrown in that don’t gel with Basqiuat’s story. We get performances from unknown rock bands. Deborah Harry’s story is a mess. Aside from seeing Basquiat, who was 19 at the time, we do get to see what NYC looked like in the 80s before the transformation to a cleaner city. The 80’s consisted of emerging rock bands, the creation of MTV, graffiti artists making names for themselves, and art branching out in different levels. As confusing as this film may be to some, its highlight is seeing a gifted artist like Basquiat take a stab in acting. We actually see glimpses of his life before Warhol discovered him. Basquiat died at the age of 27, and this film brings his memory back to the forefront.
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