Follow Basquiat Through 80s Downtown NYC in This Newly Reissued Film

'Downtown 81' depicts a day in the young artist's life as he hustles in Manhattan's art scene.
October 18, 2019, 3:38pm
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Getty Images / Rose Hartman

All the busy colors and grit of the much-romanticized downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1980s are coming to theaters in a newly restored version of Downtown 81, a film starring a young Jean-Michel Basquiat moving a painting through the streets while looking for a place to sleep that night. The day-in-the-life movie was shot in 1981, but remained unfinished and unreleased at the time due to money problems. It premiered for the first time in 2000, long after Basquiat's death in 1988.


The film captures the quirky flow of the city and the freewheeling enigmatic vibe that Basquiat later became known for. "New York is my kind of town," he says in the beginning of the movie teaser. "If you can make it there, you can sell people your unwanted hair." He says the city has "a diamond brick road" that he's off to see, foreshadowing his own real-life success which he willed into existence with his famous confidence.

Of course, it wouldn't be a day in the life of New York's 80s art scene if he didn't bump into people who would become famous one day. The movie also features appearances by artist and musician John Lurie as well as Fab Five Freddy, the graffiti artist who later hosted Yo! MTV Raps,the first rap show on MTV. And Basquiat also drops by some band performances from DNA, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks. The script was written by Glenn O'Brien, an art-scene regular and friend of Andy Warhol. It was directed by Swiss photographer Edo Bertoglio.

Downtown 81 will start showing at the Metrograph Theater on October 25 and will be released more broadly in November.

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