Now On DVD: DOWNTOWN 81 Captures A Lost New York, For Good And For Bad
In its best moments, Downtown 81 achieves a rare state of transcendence, wiping away the mists of time and making the Manhattan that existed in 1981 come alive once again.
Too bad those moments are few and far between. Written by Glenn O'Brien, directed by Edo Bertoglio, and starring Jean Michel Basquiat in his only dramatic performance, Downtown 81 is structured around 24 hours in the life of an artist who gets locked out of his apartment and then spends the day rambling around the city, wondering what to do with his life. The narrative is loosely assembled, with all the dialogue apparently added and synched in post-production.
To be kind, I'll note the low, low budget, and pass on to what holds the greatest personal appeal: it reminds me of my youth. I mean that quite literally. I was a fan of several of the musical acts that are featured in the film, and I visited New York in 1981, when the movie was made. I saw Kid Creole and the Coconuts in concert -- a freaking fantastic show -- and about five minutes from one of their other performances is a highlight here. I also witnessed a tremendous, 20-minute live version of "Rapture," performed by Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (of Chic), and a big band of musicians, and Harry and Stein are present here too.
So it's difficult for me to separate my own nostalgic memories from the cinematic realities of Downtown 81, which was filmed in 1981 but not completed and released until 2000. My favorite parts of the movie, and what make it worthwhile and valuable for me, are the musical performances by Kid Creole, DNA, Tuxedomoon, and James White and the Blacks. Those are my touchstones for that period of musical history, and that makes this an essential movie.
Without that personal and nostalgic appeal, I'd have to acknowledge that the movie is a bit of a drag. If you have any sort of affinity for the subject matter, however, that will likely be the decider. It's now available as a collector's edition DVD from Music Box Films. The bonus features include:
-- Audio Commentary by producers Maripol and Glenn O'Brien
-- New Interviews with Fab Five Freddy, Maripol and Glenn O'Brien
-- Rare archive footage and 1980 episode of "Glenn O'Brien's TV Party"
-- New Expanded Photo Gallery
-- 32-page Collector's Booklet
The film is also available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms. Visit Music Box Films for more information.