In connection with the festival of American cult films Freedom Fries , showing in the Sõprus cinema from 27 February to 5 March 2015, kultuur.info will publish Tõnis Jürgens’ review of the film Downtown 81, which will be shown at the festival.
Downtown 81 is a atmospheric documentary framed by a slightly playful plot, recording the life of counterculture in New York of the early 1980s, the degraded urban scene of downtown Manhattan back then and a notional day in the life of the young street artist and poet Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both the story of how this film made it to the screens as well as the actual life of the protagonist of this semi-fairy tale are fascinating.
Basquiat initially gained renown as SAMO (Same Old Shit). SAMO was the pseudonym or trademark coined by Basquiat and his schoolmates Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson in their high school days, and they used it to write spontaneous and enigmatic epigrams and aphorisms on the walls of downtown Manhattan in 1976-1979 – mainly on the initiative of Basquiat. Unlike most of the graffiti artists of the day, SAMO ‘bombed’ walls, not subway train carriages, and was striving more towards anonymity and substantial criticism instead of an ego trip of visual tagging.
Even though Basquiat claimed he had no ambitions with this endeavour, he was nevertheless targeting the walls close to the art galleries of SoHo in the later stage of the SAMO project. Basquiat himself claimed it was a certain type of criticism of institutions. The street artist era ties Basquiat more generally to the underground movement of that time, on the other hand, SAMO eventually helped him get his foot in the door in the very same galleries
In 1979, the end of the SAMO corporation was announced with the epitaph SAMO© IS DEAD. Around that time, Basquiat revealed that he was SAMO – on the counterculture programme TV Party of his friend Glenn O’Brien, where Basquiat was a regular guest. O’Brien was a consummate journalist, music critic, style guru, a remarkable figure in covering the cultural scene of that time and more importantly, the screenwriter and producer of New York Beat Movie (later Downtown 81).
In writing the screenplay, O’Brien used life itself as a source. All who took part essentially played themselves, in an amplified reality. The real Jean-Michel Basquiat allegedly often wandered around the streets of New York, broke and homeless, and in night clubs – mostly in the legendary Mudd Club – and hit on women to find shelter for a night or two. Basquiat didn’t have a home at the time of the film shoot and he slept and painted in the offices of the production.
So it also happens in the film that Jean-Michel is kicked out of his flat for failing to pay the rent. The artist takes one of his paintings with him to the street, hoping to sell it to someone to get the money for the rent. Now Jean-Michel is simply progressing, a joint in his mouth and the painting under his arm; meeting people and visiting places. If you want to see the world, you just have to walk a couple of blocks. Even though Basquiat had renounced the SAMO project by this time, he was persuaded to write a few lines on the walls for the sake of the film. This way, Downtown 81 is the last record of his actions as a graffiti artist.
Then Jean-Michel is tipped off – there is a wealthy middle aged art patron somewhere who could be interested in his painting. A vision of the more prosperous class of Basquiat as an up-and-coming ghetto artist then emerges. „So strong! So savage! […] Do you think you have a pink one?“ People just need something to hang on the walls of their dining room. But well, Basquiat gets rid of his painting for a cheque and a wad of cash and happily descends on the street again. However, this is unfortunately not the end of his troubles because the night is falling and the wanderer still has no shelter. He can only rely on the help of friends and/or good luck…
The young artist, wandering and pondering the streets, provides a good cinematographic frame for introducing the underground social life bubbling in lower Manhattan at that time. The peaceful, even comfortable negotiation of Jean-Michel’s obstacle course is accompanied by the sounds of new wave and no wave artists, including The Lounge Lizards with John Lurie, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, the experimental post punk group Tuxedomoon, Arto Lindsay’s noise band DNA, punk jazz band James White and The Blacks, Renaissance man Vincent Gallo and Basquiat’s own industrial-sound band Gray. In addition to the musical contribution, many of the abovementioned people will also do little cameos in the film.
Also, Downtown 81 is a kind of a document of the harsh, sometimes even ruined milieu of the pre-gentrification Lower East Side, which, according to Jean-Michel, looked like a warzone: “… like we had bombed ourselves”. Numerous trendy boutiques and lounges have moved there by now.
In 1981, when the shooting of New York Beat Movie had wrapped, the financiers of the project unexpectedly withdrew and the entire project was abandoned. The same year, Jean-Michel Basquiat met Andy Warhol for the very first time, becoming close friends over time, took part in some important local exhibitions that brought him attention, and by the end of the year, achieved recognition in the wider art circles, largely thanks to an article written by Rene Ricard.This marks Basquiat’s crossing into mainstream recognition.
Quite soon, only a few years later, the artist was at the height of his fame, worked with Andy Warhol , hung out with Madonna, sat, wearing a suit, on the cover of the New York Times and exhibited his works at the prestigious galleries of New York, L. A., Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo and other metropolises. And soon his downfall began.
In 1987, after the sudden death of Andy Warhol, Basquiat fell deeper into the mire of isolation and depression. Falling out with several former friends and souring relations with people from the art circles also led to his downfall. This culminated in August 1988 in an overdose of speedball, heroin and cocaine, and his death. At 27. In November the same year, some 300 friends, acquaintances and admirers gathered for a memorial event for Basquiat, performing music and poetry in his memory.
Twelve years later, the producer of New York Beat Movie Glenn O’Brien and artist/designer Maripol took the rights of the film from the financiers. By that time, the soundtrack of Basquiat had disappeared somewhere, so his voice was dubbed by musician-writer-actor Saul Williams. The music of the film was recorded separately on a RCA 24 track mobile unit, mostly live, and thankfully it has survived. The film was renamed Downtown 81 and it premiered at the Cannes film festival, dedicated to Jean-Michel and other people of that era and movement.
Whereas Basquiat’s real life ended with the unfortunate inclusion in the 27 Club, Downtown 81 provides a fantastic prophecy of a happy ending. It is a slice of that period of wandering and hanging around in that magical city, when everything was still to come for the young artist and his co-fighters. An endless roll into the morning glowing on the horizon.
 Example: https://www.design-party.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/samo_is_dead_12ozprophet.jpg
 „TV Party“ is another story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9ZjPah0wJI
 The location are the same production offices where Basquiat actually lived during the shoot.
 His style in SAMO – but not that of others – were later hijacked by many admirers and people wanting to make a quick buck.
 „The Radiant Child“: https://artforum.com/inprintarchive/id=35643.
 Everyone who is interested could also watch the documentary The Radiant Child (2010) by Tamra Davis and Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat – the latter for the performance of David Bowie alone.