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Downtown 81, a newly released film (though the bulk of the footage was shot 25 years ago), presents a dramatic subset of New York art, fashion, and pop music that retains a darkly lit mysteriousness. The film, which stars the late Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, looks like a documentary, but is instead a fictionalized account of what it felt like to create and scheme and party as a charismatic downtown Manhattan scenester as the end of the laid-back ’70s raced into the more frenetic ’80s. Inevitably, the Basquiat character is surrounded by the unpretty sound of experimental bands; he even has a drummy, dubby one of his own, the real-life Gray.
Listening to these sharp, often live recordings—the deceptive, Latinized high jinks of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the knife-edged funk of James Chance, the bursts of DNA, the scroungy jazz of the Lounge Lizards, even the silken early rap of Melle Mel—is to hear ambitious music-making free of agendas past or present. They’re not only free of the dogmatic guitars of punk; they’re operating without reference to the music industry or subsequent indie-rock etiquette or even history. When they make noise, as DNA do on “Blonde Redhead,” it’s only about the sheer sensation; when they essay blues, as the Lounge Lizards do on “I’m a Doggy,” they highlight the sex, not the form; when they mix candy and haze, as Suicide do on “Cheree,” they’re not shoe-gazing. Drugs and parties and thousands of black-leather jackets all played their parts. But the music—jagged, wrecked, or playful—sounds like it was about the music and little else.