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A Slice of New York Beat part I

downtown81  artwork © pipe

Downtown 81 : a.k.a New York Beat Movie was made in early 1981 by a bunch of creative types from downtown New York. The film is a unique insight into the underground art and music scene in 'The Big Apple' at the beginning of the 1980s. At the centre stands a nineteen year old Jean Michel Basquiat. He is playing the role of Jean, an aspiring street artist/musican/poet. A role which very much resembles Basquiat himself at that time. He used his own paintings as props in the film as well as playing with his real life band Gray.

Downtown 81 is visually a very interesting film. It shows a side of New York not often seen on the screen. It follows Jean floating through wretched streets, smokey bars and hole-in-the-wall night clubs in a down town New York that is now long gone. Every so often Jean stops to write poems on the walls of the back streets. The way these scenes are filmed reminded me of Marianne Faithfull's spray-painting in Godard’s One Plus One. However in Downtown 81 the messages are sometimes personal and more poetical than political. These were very much in line with the street poems Basquiat was doing at that time.

imageimage  Spray-painting in New York in 1981 . . . . . . and in London in 1969.

One of the films strongest features is its soundtrack, which includes Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tuxedomoon, The Plastics, DNA and Vincent Gallo (who was a member of Gray for a short period). Many songs are unique live versions, which ads to the films 'of the time' feel. The cast includes Chris Stein and Debbie Harry (who at the end of the filming bought a painting by the still unknown artist, for a mere $200).







The band Gray: Vincent Gallo, Justin Thyme, Nick Taylor, Michael Holman, and (on floor) Basquiat, 1980.

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