Downtown 81 is a dodgy movie that doubles as essential viewing for anybody with even a passing interest in New York. Its chief point of entry, in broad cultural terms, is Jean-Michel Basquiat: The painter, only 19 when the film was shot and not yet the Basquiat of museum lore, stars as an ethereal wanderer of the East Village when the neighborhood played home to lots of weird artists and looked like a war zone. He walks around and happens into people and places-- though, as one of many bits of overlaid narration has it, "any resemblance between the characters and events depicted here and reality is...purely magical."
Not exactly. As a film, Downtown 81 is a groan-inducing mess, with a limp script (see: a solemn poetry-slam invocation of New York as "neon literature") and scores of poorly acted scenes between characters whose sole interest in the proceedings seems to derive from the fact that they were all good friends. It so happens, however, that all the friends at play were extremely cool and important figures on "the scene"-- the cross-section of culture that, in early-80s New York, included a rich cast immersed in art, fashion, design, dance, and especially music.
Music rescues Downtown 81, so much so that the film's goofy missteps and frivolous tone count now among its charms. The soundtrack bears this out: Recently released on CD for the first time (the movie itself was only resurrected in 2000), Downtown 81 offers a survey of 1980s art-music that differs from more austere post-minded compilations charged with making a case for their own worth. The mix of no-wave, punk-funk, and hip-hop heard here plays less like historical data and more like social music-- the kind of stuff that people scammed their way into shows to hear, that got laughed at, and danced to.
After the filmic theme, as played by Basquiat's band Gray, the social aspect rushes to the fore with Coati Mundi Hernandez's "K Pasa-Pop I"-- a manic spat of would-be world music in which background singers vamp behind Hernandez singing/rapping/scatting, as he himself says, "like a fruit fly on a pear." Hernandez was a member of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, who show up later with "Mr. Softee", a joyous romp that falls somewhere strange between funk and ska.
Much of Downtown 81's allure owes to the ways it collapses any perceived distance between such poppy party songs and the abstract anglings of, say, DNA. In the film, the two scenes featuring DNA make up some of the most electrifying footage of a band playing live ever. (Not to mention the film's DVD commentary, in which the director explains that DNA bassist Tim Wright spent many years in the jungles of Belize learning how to be a witch doctor and "actually is able to converse with flies.") The detuned exhortations of the band's "Blonde Redhead" and "Detached" work just as well as plain audio, and they slot in on the soundtrack with other nervy experiments by Tuxedomoon, Lydia Lunch, and Walter Steding and the Dragon People.
It's not as easy as weird and not-weird, though. There's no such distinction to be drawn on a compilation that flits between the stately jazz of the Lounge Lizards and freestyle rap by Melle Mel, a patch of Cuban music by Pablo Calogero, and the wiry new-wave of the Plastics. Followers of the era won't necessarily need more copies of Liquid Liquid's "Cavern" and James Chance's "Contort Yourself", but there's great worth in hearing such hits in the midst of lesser known-- and less contextualized-- gems that suggest New York in the early 80s was as much a refuge for fun as it was an asylum for free-thinking.