The film Downtown 81, shot in downtown New York between 1980 and 1981, is a cross between a documentary of the area's thriving art/music scene and a day-in-the-life story about a young artist played by Jean Michel Basquiat. It follows Basquiat's character as he struggles to find a way to avoid eviction from his apartment; he attempts to sell some of his artwork and ends up doing some club-hopping later in the day to track someone down who can provide him with a place to stay for the night. In the meantime, he encounters all sorts of characters and bands, both real and not. Some of those include no wavers James White & the Blacks and DNA, legendary Caribbean/disco fusionists Kid Creole & the Coconuts, and Blondie's Debbie Harry, who turns into a princess after Basquiat kisses her (other members of Blondie appear with Harry as a band called the Felons). The project was dropped without release sometime in the '80s, but it was dusted off and revitalized in time for the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. It was released on a limited number of art-house screens later that year, and this soundtrack was also issued to promote it. Since the New York music scene was so exciting and diverse -- from no wave to calypso to rap to new wave -- the soundtrack is an excellent stand-alone release as well, featuring live and studio cuts that are featured in the film. (Only a handful of the 20 selections have no direct ties to the film, but they're still relevant musically to the remainder of the disc.) The biggest selling point here has to be the legendary Rammellzee Vs. K-Rob's "Beat Bop" (which was produced by Basquiat), one of old school rap's brightest but unrecognized gleams. There's all sorts of scratchy no wave from DNA ("Blonde Redhead," "Detached"), James White & the Blacks ("Contort Yourself," "Sax Maniac"), and Lydia Lunch ("The Closet"), making this disc a decent substitute for those who can't track down the No New York compilation. Other appearances come from Liquid Liquid (the beyond-classic "Cavern"), Tuxedomoon, Suicide, the Plastics, Coati Munti Hernandez, and Basquiat's own band, Gray. Even without the context of the film, Downtown 81 documents a period when all sorts of cultures weren't merely co-existing, but feeding off each other as well.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman