Downtown 81

Street Roving in ‘Downtown 81’ and ‘Wild Style’

These two films speak earnestly to the nature of creativity and the sense of urgency one often experiences in producing a work of art – especially when faced with little to no means during the creative process.

It was tentatively called New York Beat more than 35 years ago, a title referring to the hodgepodge music and art scene in New York that encompassed punk, hip-hop and funk of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Twenty years after its filming was completed in 1981, it would be re-titled Downtown 81 when it was finally restored, edited and released in 2001. Starring a then-burgeoning artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus a host of other New York notables such as Deborah Harry, Kid Creole, Fab 5 Freddy and DNA, Downtown 81 works as both a revealing documentary on the New York art scene of the early ‘80s and a fantasy-drama of urban extraction.

Written by on-the-pulse music and art critic Glen O’Brian and directed by fashion photographer Edo Bertoglio, Dowtown 81 is a stylish narrative of loose-leaf aestheticism which captures the Lower East Side’s art world with roving intensity. The story is quite thin; the late Basquiat plays a young artist named Jean-Michel who wakes up in a hospital, goes home, is thrown out of his apartment and searches the streets for a place to stay and some much needed cash. Along the way, he meets various friends and bandmates, a host of Lower East Side eccentrics and one magical fairy-princess (played by Blondie’s Deborah Harry) whom he frees from a spell which has turned her into a gutter-alley vagrant.

Bertoglio’s direction is winningly amateurish, frenetic and passionate and it perfectly captures (perhaps immortalizes) Basquiat as the resourceful and sagacious young artist he was during his lifetime. Indeed, the plot is barely there, but the cool, genial charms of the film’s star and supporting players lend the story an illustrious energy that seems to glow in the spaces that these characters inhabit. Dowtown 81 is very much about the art of happenstance and Basquiat (essentially playing himself here) lives life on the go and in unharmonious balance, taking what he can wherever he can.

The best segments in the film are the musical numbers, which give a rare view into the lifestyles that dominated such trendy and revolutionary hangouts like CBGB, the Mudd Club and the Peppermint Lounge. It’s hard not to feel so taken while watching the likes of Basquiat, DNA, Fab 5 Freddy and Deborah Harry simply move through the narrative like it was any other day of the week in their everyday city lives. The music, the art and the desperation are the elements which make up this indispensable artifact of a pre-gentrified New York City.

Wild Style

Wild Style, filmed a couple years later in 1983, documents the hip-hop extraction of the No Wave movement. More of a visual essay on graffiti culture than a fully formed narrative (it’s even less of a story than Downtown 81), Charlie Ahearn’s classic examination of Lower East Side youth has been heralded as one of the earliest records of graffiti culture (alongside Style Wars).

The sketchy narrative deals with an adolescent boy who is trying to make a name for himself as one of the most skilled and original graffiti artists in town. Using an amusing alias and disguise (he tags under the moniker “Zoro” while stalking the city streets at night), Raymond endeavours to leave his trace over his home territory as he grows somewhat detached from his friends and family. When the tagging and graffiti phenomenon expands beyond the Lower East Side neighborhoods, so much so that a reporter from uptown (Patti Astor) decides to visit the scene and interview the various graffiti troupes, Raymond is conflicted about sharing his art, which he feels protective of.

Ahearn’s social drama of inspired but disenfranchised youth is difficult to watch if you are looking for a clear linear narrative. It works better as an introduction to some of the most important cornerstones of hip-hop culture. Much of the picture comes across as more of a concert film and there’s certainly a lot in the way of the music; rap’s golden years are explored through stylistically diverse strands of hip-hop — everything from electro and funk to post-disco and new wave can be heard as the culture begins to take shape. For heavy hip-hop heads, Wild Style is a dream document of vital information; for the casual viewer, it’s a curious look into one of New York’s most electrifying moments in history.

Music Box Films has already knocked it out of the park just by re-releasing these two films. That they have gone beyond the call of duty to present both Downtown 81 and Wild Style in expanded double-disc editions is a giant leap over the moon. Downtown 81 is remastered and, while still showing some signs of wear, has been cleaned up to present a transfer in which colour contrasts and sharpness are nicely balanced. There are some issues with the sound; dialogue can be difficult to decipher at times (no doubt due to the low budget equipment used for filming), while the musical numbers and voiceovers are full and rich. It should also be noted that the original audio track (at least the voiceover narration portion) was lost when the filmmakers worked to put the film together 20 years after it was shot. It’s rapper Saul Williams you hear on the narration track, speaking in Basquiat’s voice.

The supplementary disc for Downtown 81 includes a commentary track and interviews with Glen O’Brian as well as Fab 5 Freddy and the film’s producer. As well, a couple of the public access TV shows (TV Party) hosted by O’Brian and featuring Basquiat are included. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles offered here. There’s a 32-page booklet, featuring photos and a personal account by O’Brian about putting the film together.

Wild Style’s transfer also shows signs of wear, but the film has been cleaned up considerably to produce some flashy colours that come to life on the screen. The issues with the audio are, as with Downtown 81, a little weak in the dialogue area and magnificent in the musical sequences. No subtitles are available here either. The supplements include a commentary track, interviews with the film’s stars as well as unseen footage and a 48-page booklet featuring photos and personal stories from some of the actors. Both Downtown 81 and Wild Style have been remastered in HD.

These two films speak earnestly to the nature of creativity and the sense of urgency one often experiences in producing a work of art — especially when faced with little to no means during the creative process. The fact that anyone who was faced with limitations had decided to make a film about artistic exigency is an interesting self-referential comment on those very creative pressures. If you can forgo narrative convention for the sake of really good ideas presented in really interesting ways, both Downtown 81 and Wild Style prove a valuable experience in simply witnessing youthful ingenuity.