DVD Review: Downtown 81 30th Anniversary Edition

DowntownDVDSTUDIO: Music Box Films | DIRECTOR: Edo Bertoglio | CAST: Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Lurie, Ted Bafaloukos, Tom Baker, Eszter Balint, Diane Brill
RELEASE DATE: 6/30/15 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
BONUSES: commentary, archival footage, interviews, 32-page collector’s booklet
SPECS: NR | 72 min. | Drama comedy | 1.66:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall

As 1980’s New York City reaches mythical status, supported by a new generation of transplanted urbanites who long for a pre-Disney Times Square they never got to experience, films like Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 become more and more vital. Like Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 Wild Style, Downtown 81 is a piece of scripted fiction where all the actors play themselves, creating a timeless work existing somewhere between documentary and narrative. The surface is a ridiculously thin plot, with campy situations and stilted dialogue- none of which deters from the real value of this film.

What Downtown 81 does wonderfully is capture a time and place that was soon to disappear. Wild Style did the exact same thing for the uptown graffiti and hip hop scene; this one covers the burgeoning downtown art scene occurring at the same time. Some folks, like Fab Five Freddy, had a foot in both camps and, thus, appear in both films. But the real star here is artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, far from the enigmatic poster boy for hipsterdom that his legend has become, comes off as quiet and unaffected, a product of the streets doing what he must to get by.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81

Jean-Michel Basquiat in Downtown 81

We follow Basquiat through a typical day in the life of a downtown artist, and in doing so, get a taste of the Lower East Side that bears no resemblance to the yuppified haven of trendiness you’ll find today. You also get to meet dozens of the real-life characters from that scene; the names are long forgotten, but their archetypes are instantly recognizable. If you live in a city, you probably know their modern-day counterparts yourself.

The secret treasure contained in this film is the music; Downtown 81 captures several great bands at their peak, including a rare look at Arto Lindsay’s no-wave geniuses, DNA. Their frenetic performance alone is worth the price of admission, though you also get glimpses of The Plastics, The Felons, and MC Cool Kyle freestyling over some old skool scratching. The film also spends a few minutes showing off Kid Creole and the Coconuts, whose live show was nothing short of riveting, combining all sorts of world music influences into a new wave swirl of post-modern madness. It’s impossible to watch these Downtown 81 bands and not think of all the art school millennials following in their wake: TV On the Radio, TuneYards, Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah… wonderful as they are, these guys did it first, three decades ago.

Music Box Films, who also released the 30th Anniversary Wild Style DVD, gives Downtown 81 the same twi-disc treatment. Disc 1 is simply the 72 minute film; Disc 2 gives you a few interviews with key players, including screenwriter Glenn O’ Brien, who’s chock-full of anecdotes about making the film (the entire film is dubbed, apparently, because they lost the audio tapes in Italy!) Maripol and Fab Five Freddy also give some nice interviews.

The real gem on Disc 2 is an episode of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, an incredibly low-budget NYC public access show that gave exposure to the crazy, hip bohemians that still ruled the lower half of the city back then. The lack of production value and total improvisation has a welcome un-slickness that our sophisticated modern society will never regain. It would have been amazing to include the full performances of all the seminal NYC bands appearing in the film, but all in all, it’s a sweet tribute to a city that no longer exists.


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About Memo

Memo Salazar attempts many things and accomplishes few. His big three are making films, music, and comics, but he'll throw photography, graphic design and film criticism into the ring for good measure. He'll even make you a hand-painted t-shirt if you ask nicely. You can track his activity here when there's nothing else to do at work.