Downtown 81

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Downtown 81
Directed byEdo Bertoglio
Produced byGlenn O'Brien
Written byGlenn O'Brien
StarringJean-Michel Basquiat
Anne Carlisle
Music byVincent Gallo
CinematographyJohn McNulty
Edited byPamela French
Release date
Running time
72 minutes
CountryUnited States

Downtown 81 (a.k.a. New York Beat Movie) is a film that was shot in 1980-1981 and released in 2000.[1]

The film, directed by Edo Bertoglio and written and produced by Glenn O'Brien and Patrick Montgomery, with post-production in 1999-2000 by Glenn O'Brien and Maripol, is a rare real-life snapshot of an ultra-hip subculture of post-punk era Manhattan. Starring renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and featuring such Village artists as James Chance, Amos Poe, Walter Steding, Tav Falco and Elliott Murphy, the film is a bizarre elliptical urban fairy tale. In 1999, Michael Zilkha, founder of ZE Records (the label of several of the film's artists), became the film's executive producer.


The film opens with Jean (Basquiat) in the hospital with an undisclosed ailment. After checking out, he happens upon an enigmatic woman, Beatrice (Anna Schroeder), who drives around in a convertible. He arrives at his apartment only to discover that his landlord, played by former Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky, is evicting him.

Later, while trying to sell his art work, he encounters many downtown New York characters, from musician Arto Lindsay and his band DNA to David McDermott to graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Fab Five Freddy. Jean eventually does manage to sell some of his art work to a rich middle-aged woman who is interested in more than just his art, but she pays with a check. As the film progresses, he wanders the streets of New York City, looking for Beatrice. He catches performances by Kid Creole and the Coconuts and James White and the Blacks. Finally he happens upon a bag lady (Debbie Harry) who turns into a princess when he kisses her. As a reward, she gives him a stack of cash.

Parallels to real life[edit]

Writer and Producer O'Brien had a popular music column "Glenn O'Brien's Beat" in Interview Magazine and created the film as to showcase the bands that he had been writing about. The film was initially titled "New York Beat", referencing the music. The story was created to string together the live performances, shot on the RCA 24-track mobile recording unit, the best live recording technology at the time. O’Brien, who knew Basquiat from his TV Party program and the Mudd Club, cast then-unknown Basquiat in the film, and said of the movie: “The film is an exaggerated version of life,” he said.[2]

Jean-Michel Basquiat was homeless at the time of the movie and slept in the production office during most of the shooting. The film production crew bought Basquiat canvas and paints to make paintings for the film. The paintings that appear in the movie belonging to Basquiat’s character are by Basquiat himself, and among his first canvases.[3]

Debbie Harry (who plays the fairy princess who gives him money), and her boyfriend Chris Stein, both of the band Blondie, bought a painting of Basquiat’s for $200 after the end of shooting.[citation needed]


"New York Beat Movie" was shot over December 1980 and January 1981. It was funded by Rizzoli, but the movie was abandoned in the mid-'80s due to financial problems. Producer O'Brien resurrected the film after acquiring the rights in 1999 (over a decade after Basquiat's death). It was released in 2000 as "Downtown '81" at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

The dialogue audio for the film was lost, so actor Saul Williams dubbed the late Basquiat's voice. However, the musical soundtrack, mostly live club performances recorded on location using an RCA 24-track mobile unit, survived.


The soundtrack features music by: Jean-Michel Basquiat with Andy Hernandez; Basquiat's own band, Gray; John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, DNA, Tuxedomoon, the Plastics, Marvin Pontiac, Kenny Burrell, the Specials, Chris Stein, Melle Mel with Blondie, Liquid Liquid, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James White and the Blacks, Vincent Gallo, Lydia Lunch, Steve French and Suicide. Many of the recordings were of live performances, but DNA and Tuxedomoon were recorded in the studio for the soundtrack.


After it premiered as "Downtown '81" at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, reviews were mostly favorable. Variety called it “an extraordinary real-life snapshot of hip, arty, clubland Manhattan in the post-punk era.”[4]

A rare movie review in Artforum said, "Basquiat is a joy to watch. He floats through the movie with cool grace and unflagging energy; he's a natural in front of the lens..."[5]

British art critic Adrian Searle wrote that "Downtown 81 captures that New York moment when punk, emerging rap, art school cool and the East Village art and music scenes were at their creative best.”[6]

While the main appeal of the film seems to have been the art and music, some commentators also appreciated giving the modern viewer a peek at the decimated Lower East Side of 1980, saying "the real star of the film is the gritty milieu of a New York long gone",[5] and that "New York Beat...conveys the vast gulf between Manhattan’s rich and the forgotten corners of the city, and the marginal existence of the artistic underground who tried to survive in between these worlds."[3]


  1. ^ Lisa Lockwood (April 8, 2017). "Glenn O'Brien, who once wrote GQ's Style Guy column, dies at 70". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  2. ^ Filmmaker Archived August 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Vol. 8 No.4, (Summer 2000).
  3. ^ a b Eric Fretz. Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography Archived 2016-02-01 at the Wayback Machine. Greenwood Press, 2010.
  4. ^ Brendan Kelly. Variety, May 18th, 2000.
  5. ^ a b Mike McGonigal. "Same Ol' Samo," Artforum, Summer 2000.
  6. ^ Adrian Searle, “Downtown 81”, The Guardian, August 2000.

Further reading[edit]

  • Edo Bertoglio (director). Downtown ’81. Written by Glenn O’Brien; produced by Glenn O'Brien and Patrick Montgomery. Post-production by Maripol. Executive Producer Michael Zilkha. Zeitgeist Films, 2000. 72 mins.
  • Jeffery Deitch, Diego Cortez, and Glenn O’Brien. Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: the Studio of the Street, Milan: Charta, 2007.
  • Anthony Haden-Guest. "The Roving Eye" ArtNet review of Downtown 81 .

External links[edit]