New Film Project Art Drug Spins a Tale From NYC’s ’80s Underground
Most independent films seeking funding on Kickstarter are documentaries, shorts, or genre material. What you don’t see a lot of are music-drenched period pieces. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening with a project called Art Drug, a fictional peek into the underground New York City art and music scene of the late 1980s. Filmmaker Billy Martin and writer Mark Andrew Ferguson have posted some test footage and expanded treatments on the film’s project page, and Art Drug looks like it will be a trippy audio-visual treat.
The story follows the artistic self-discover of a drummer named Harris, as he experiences synesthesia and audio hallucinations. (The clip above offers a taste.) “Harris is hearing these sounds and he’s trying to figure out where they’re coming from,” says Martin. In fact, Harris’s journey largely mirrors that of the filmmaker: Martin is a drummer in the popular avant-jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and in the late ’80s, Martin was playing in jazz bands at the Knitting Factory and other clubs in New York while going through his own period of artistic exploration. (He’s also written books about music, and performs regularly with the likes of John Zorn and DJ Spooky.)
The Downtown scene in New York, a melange of music, art, and reckless creativity, has been mined extensively for fictional and documentary works. Touchstones include Edo Bertoglio’s film Downtown 81, Julian Schnabel’s biopic on Basquiat, and the memoirs of Patti Smith. HBO’s upcoming show Vinyl, which premieres in February, is set during the heyday of Downtown punk and disco clubs, the world of the Ramones and The New York Dolls. But all of those works concentrate on the mid-to-late 1970s and the early 1980s. Art Drug will focus on a period Martin says is largely undocumented: 1987.
“This is a time where there isn’t much written about,” he says. “In the late ’80s, people don’t really know what was happening. It was the beginning of the end, a time to move on.” About 15 years ago, he met the writer Mark Andrew Ferguson. Over the course of their relationship, Ferguson began to build a narrative using Martin’s stories of ’80s New York as a template. “The screenplay is a fifty-fifty collaboration, but a lot of it comes from my experience,” Martin says. “Mark was able to create these characters and weave it all together.”
Of course, Martin being a composer and performer, music will be a key component of Art Drug. “In a way, it’s a musical, but I’m afraid to call it that,” he says. It’s a fictional narrative, but it’s about musicians, so music will play a very important part in the film.” Martin will be composing and producing the score, bringing in some of his cohorts from the world the film inhabits: Steven Bernstein, John Medeski, Arturo O’Farrill, and Vernon Reid.
Once the film is released (Martin stresses it will be completed regardless of how the crowdfunding shakes out; he has self-produced two documentary features already), the filmmakers plan to tour with the movie to promote it, concentrating on non-traditional venues where they can do a musical performance, show the film, and the have a discussion.
“We’ll premiere the film, have a concert—in what order, I don’t know,” Martin says. “Maybe we’ll do a residency in an art and music department at a university. However we do it, because I’m known as a performer, I can put together some musical groups in each town that are exciting enough to get people to show up.”