5 films | 1980s nyc underground
Are you one of those people who long for the good old days of 80s NYC even if you are too young to have been there? (We are!)
Does the heady mix of lower Manhattan punk rock, the Bronx’s hip-hop up north, and a thriving modern art scene among crumbling rows of dilapidated buildings leave you drunk with nostalgia? (Damn straight.) Then these five films are for you. Because while they may not have the ability to physically airmail you three decades back in time, they will deliver an honest glimpse inside one of the most creative periods of the 20th century.
Blank Generation (1980)
Director: Ulli Lomel
Synopsis: Actress Carole Bouquet plays Nada, a French television reporter covering the underground music scene in NYC. She starts a tumultuous affair with her main subject, up-and-coming rock star Billy (Richard Hell) who is about to sign a record deal. They’re both a little crazy and co-dependent, breaking up and reconciling nearly every other scene, which makes for some unintentionally funny moments. Director Ulli Lommel appears as Hoffritz, Nada’s colleague and lover who spends most of the film trying to track Andy Warhol down for an interview. (He eventually succeeds, leading to a typically odd Warhol sort of moment featuring a furry hooded coat.) Excellent live cuts of Hell and his band the Voidoids at CBGB, performing tracks from their 1977 Blank Generation album. Also guaranteed to make you weak in the knees is Nada’s NoHo loft apartment which, even with its unfinished walls and sparse furniture, will have you wishing you had invested in cheap NYC real estate back in the day.
Where to watch: YouTube
Downtown 81 (1981)
Director: Edo Bertoglio
Synopsis: A slice of life through the eyes of an artist on the verge, Downtown 81 follows Jean-Michel Basquiat through the beat up streets of the LES as he tries to sell some artwork to drum up rent money and his lost soulmate. Along the way, we run into similarly almost-famous characters: Fab 5 Freddy, “Lee” George Quinones, Debbie Harry (who plays a fairy princess bag lady…?), Kid Creole, Melle Mel, Lydia Lunch. The acting is flat and the plot is lacking, but Basquiat is positively captivating on screen even as most of his scenes show him simply walking through a ruined urban landscape. Shot over the course of six weeks in late 1980 and early 1981, Downtown 81 (originally titled New York Beat Movie) was rendered as a portrait of Bertoglio and girlfriend Maripol’s artist friends. However, after the movie was in the can, they lost financial backing, part of the footage was (temporarily) misplaced, and the film was shelved for nearly twenty years. In 1998, Maripol rescued the reels, pieced them together and finally released the newly renamed flick in 2000.
Where to watch: YouTube
Director: Susan Seidelman
Synopsis: Self-absorbed, unemployed and completely shameless, Wren (Susan Bergman) is a Jesery girl-turned- East Village nymph who knows a lot of people but has few friends. Her talent for mooching is only topped by her complete inability to accomplish anything. When nice guy Paul (Brad Rijn) shows interest in her, she scams him for a free meal and a movie, and then turns her attention to wannabe rockstar Eric (Richard Hell, again) who has schemes of his own. In her stolen checkerboard shades and red high tops, Wren is a poster girl for 80s New Wave style as she fails miserably at attaining her dream of becoming a punk band manager. Director Susan Seidelman describes Smithereens‘ visual aesthetic as ‘a specific late 70s/early 80s punk graphic style. The look of the film was also influenced by the street fashion…and street art — the “ransom note” graphics of the fly-posters advertising bands that lined the walls of Alphabet City…’. A hit at the Cannes Film Festival, the $40,000 low-budget Smithereens lead to Seidelman’s first Hollywood feature, Desperately Seeking Susan.
Where to watch: Amazon
Director: Charlie Ahearn
Synopsis: ‘Zoro’ is the tag of one of NYC’s most elusive graffiti artists, Raymond, and no one, not even his girlfriend, knows the truth. But when he is tracked down by a Manhattan reporter angling for a scoop, he needs to sort out exactly what direction to take in his work and relationship. Thin on narrative but strong on talent, Wild Style is not a documentary but it does play like one, with its gritty shots of the burnt-out projects and cast of real-life B-boys and rappers. Emcee’ing the festivities is Phade (Fab 5 Freddy), who takes us inside the clubs, onto the courts and into the train yards of the Bronx. Graffiti pioneer “Lee” George Quinones plays Zoro while fellow writer Lady Pink is cast as his girlfriend, Rose. From there, the list of legends seems endless: Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers, Rocksteady Crew, Busy Bee, Crazy Legs. ‘Queen of Downtown’ and FUN Gallery curator Patti Astor co-stars as the platinum-headed journalist who convinces Zoro that he could become rich if he’d just write his graffiti on canvas instead of subway cars.
Where to watch: Amazon
Style Wars (1983)
Director: Tony Silver
Synopsis: This made-for-television doc first aired on PBS and explores the fight between the graffiti writers who turned subway cars into moving art galleries and the City of New York, who so desperately tried to take them down. From the planning stages where crews converge to brainstorm and blueprint, to the execution of these aerosol art masterpieces, it’s a fascinating peek inside an underground world that was about to suffer death by commercialism (and double barbed wire fences). We also get to see the battles between graffiti cliques, where top shelf artists like Kase and Seen get their magnificent murals needlessly tagged by the villainous, Cap who, determined to spray his name on every subway car possible, declares ‘The object is more. Not the biggest and beautful’ist, but more.’ In the meantime Mayor Koch heads up an ad campaign aimed to deter would-be bombers with the tagline, ‘Make your mark in society. Not on society.’ Style Wars is like a companion piece to the quasi-fictional Wild Style with a very similar narrative and intriguing cast of characters, from the breakers and rappers right down to the pretentious art collectors hailing graffiti art as the Next Big Thing.
Also make sure to check out two more recent documentaries on the NYC creativity community with Blank City (2010), an in-depth analysis of the independent film scene of the 70s/80s and NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell (2007), the VH-1 produced Rock Doc that pays homage to 365 turbulent days in New York politics, art, culture, and music.