Watch Downtown 81 and Rent side-by-side and you get a sense of the current identity crisis of New York City’s Lower East Side and bohemian culture in America. On one hand, we have participants enacting their dreams on a bigger screen. On the other, we have outsiders acting out a perceived dream for the silver screen. The contrast is glaring yet telling: The amateur, gap-toothed, and free clash with the SAG-card-carrying, teeth-whitened, and paid.
However, the reissue of Downtown 81‘s soundtrack allows for a more nuanced discussion that explores the parallels between the two. Although the film’s writer and co-producer, Glenn O’Brien, opines that “a lot of the people in [the film] should have conquered the world,” the soundtrack makes clear that this scene in fact succeeded in penetrating mass culture. Many of the artists here played a direct role in moving the music and art of its followers (DNA, Melle Mel, Liquid Liquid) or continue to play a role today (Debbie Harry, Vincent Gallo, Arto Lindsay).
Contrary to Basquiat’s ill-fated words from the film, “Luck is where you find it,” many of these artists did not achieve the financial or make the cultural impact of subsequent mega-icons like Madonna or Keith Haring. That said, a scant listen through Downtown 81 reveals the long-standing resonance of the no-wave classic “Cavern” or the bizarre power of Rahmmelzee and K-Rob’s “Beat Bop.”