Epsilon Spires presents ‘Downtown 81,’ a portrait of underground NYC art scene

BRATTLEBORO — At sundown on Friday, June 25, the arts organization Epsilon Spires will turn the parking lot of the historic First Baptist Church into an open-air movie theater for the fourth installment of the Backlot Cinema Series.

Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets, pillows, and chairs to make themselves comfortable for the screening of Downtown 81, a day-in-the-life film following a young artist in New York City, played by a teenaged Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The footage for Downtown 81 was shot in the early 1980s, but the film was not completed until 2000, when it premiered to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the nearly 20 years since filming, Basquiat had evolved from a homeless 19-year-old graffiti artist to an international art star, becoming the youngest artist ever admitted to the Whitney Biennial before his death in 1988 from a drug overdose at the age of 27.

Downtown 81 follows Basquiat, in the role of a painter named Jean, as he roams the Lower East Side of Manhattan trying to make rent. Jean serves as a kind of post-punk flâneur, taking the viewer on a journey through the streets of a downtown New York that would be unrecognizable today - where young, broke artists and musicians flourished amid the rubble of bombed-out brownstones, making work more for themselves and one another than for commercial viability.

“The film really captures the vibrant energy of that moment in time,” Jamie Mohr, programming director of the Backlot Cinema Series, said in a news release. “It manages to present the rawness and grit of that environment while capturing the spirit of creativity that propelled so many of the figures in the film to make lasting, influential work.”

The most recognizable star cameo in Downtown 81 is Debbie Harry, lead vocalist of the band Blondie, but fans of no wave music will spot seminal figures in the cast: members of Tuxedomoon, DNA, and The Plastics all play themselves during musical performances and scripted scenes.

Sharp-eyed devotees of the 1980s downtown New York scene will also enjoy brief appearances by model Ann Carlisle, star of the cult classic Liquid Sky, and artist David McDermott, half of the duo McDermott and McGough, who lived as 19th-century gentlemen in a perpetual performance art project.

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