Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s star turn ignites the New Wave time capsule ‘Downtown 81’


A fairy tale with color and music is one way to categorize director Edo Bertoglio’s and writer Glenn O’Brien’s New York New Wave time capsule “Downtown 81,” starring the late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat as a cultural wanderer looking for beauty, fame and rent money, and now getting a rerelease. Another descriptor might be: Art and youth walk into a club and jam to the revolution.

Filmed at the grit-lined hinge of an exciting art-and-music rebirth that was the Lower East Side in 1980, but not initially shown in theaters until the turn of the millennium, this cinematic love graffiti to a burgeoning cool-club scene is as evocative as ever. Basquiat’s overcoated street artist — spray can at the ready, Saul Williams’ voice narrating his thoughts (because original audio from filming was lost) — navigates an urban petri dish thick with rappers, strippers, pushers, art collectors, music exploiters, fashion strivers and agitated rockers. Performances from DNA, James White and the Blacks, Walter Steding and Kid Creole and the Coconuts score his nighttime journey.

The glimpses inside such famed hangouts as the Peppermint Lounge and Mudd Club still hold a wayback-machine allure, as do the appearances by Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Cookie Mueller, Maripol, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry as a bag lady who wants a transformative kiss. Its bygone-ness still abuzz with creativity and movement, “Downtown 81” is a celluloid scrapbook that we can all be thankful for in helping capture the rumble before takeoff.

'Downtown 81'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.