An obvious admiration for the classic screen
tests of Andy Warhol – plus a willingness to engage with them – powers an
onstage magic for the indie-rock duo.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Andy Warhol said he
never met a person he couldn’t call “a beauty,” and if the 470-plus screen
tests he filmed bear that out it’s because they captured
something honest about every person that stared into his 16mm Bolex camera
The screen tests were
filmed in part as a visual component for the multimedia happenings Andy Warhol Uptight (’66) and Exploding Plastic Inevitable (’67), which of course featured live music from the Velvet Underground and
Nico. But after those rare performances, these films – originally called
“stillies” by Warhol – were as silent as they were when shot.
But in 2008, the Andy
Warhol Museum and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust commissioned former Galaxie 500 and
Luna founder Dean Wareham, and his band Dean & Britta, to put music to 13
of the legendary pop artist’s four-minute, silent film portraits. Wareham and his wife, Britta Phillips, have composed
soundtracks for feature films such as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid & the Whale and Olivier Assayas’ Clean, and the New York City-based Wareham has long acknowledged his bands’
musical debt to the Velvet Underground.
After screening about
150 films, Dean & Britta decided to focus their songs – a mix of originals,
instrumentals and covers — on the core group of early Warhol regulars at the
Silver Factory. The chosen screen tests were put to music and released in 2011
as 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy
Warhol’s Screen Tests. Since then, Dean & Britta have performed 65
shows all over the world while the black & white films roll above them,
including March 30 at the Southeastern
Center for Contemporary Art in
Winston-Salem, NC, as part of the Crossroads @ SECCA series.
The gallery’s intimate
film-hall setting was custom-made for what is in essence a live soundtrack.
Dean & Britta – accompanied by multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca and
Matt Sumrow – delivered the 13 songs with just the right amount of explanatory
between-song chatter (wisely saying nothing about the most famous characters,
Lou Reed and Edie Sedgewick).
What makes the whole
conceit successful – with a couple of minor exceptions
this evening – is the care Wareham
and Phillips put in to the choreography between image, music and lyrics. The
agitated tempo of “Incandescent Innocent” captures
the nervous angst of speed-freak Freddy Herko, who hurled himself out a window
shortly after his screen test. The loping gait of “Teenage Lightning &
Lonely Highway” mirrors the gum-chewing insouciance of chiseled-from-stone Paul
America, and the lighthearted bounce of “Eyes In My Smoke” highlights Ingrid
Superstar’s jokey presence on the screen as Sedgewick’s Factory stand-in when
the latter split with Warhol. (Superstar’s hair was even cut in a Sedgewick
Two of the most
successful songs are covers. The tension build-up to the enormous – and
enormously plaintive – hook in the chorus of “It Don’t Rain In Beverly Hills”
(written by the visual artist Jack Early and the band Sweden) suits
the Sedgewick film to a tee. Of all 13 screen tests, hers is the most enigmatic
– are we looking at the Warhol It Girl, the disgraced debutante, the femme
fatale, or the tragic figure behind the good looks, glitter and fame? On this
night, one of the highlights is watching Wareham
turn to the screen when the song breaks for his guitar solo as though this time
Sedgewick’s beautiful doe eyes will tell us something definitive.
For Reed’s screen test, Wareham and Phillips chose
the unreleased Velvets’ song “Not a Young Man Anymore.” Released in live form on
bootlegs years after the band split up, the insistent bent-note riff at the
song’s center echoes the nervy lick that’s so unsettling in Herko’s speed rush.
But here the element of control mirrors Reed’s mannered drinking of a Coca-Cola,
which straddles the line between conscious homage to Warhol’s pop art – a
junkie hawking corporate America’s
soft drink of success — and simple product placement. Coke is refreshing, but
Lou is cooler.
Just about the only sour
note this evening is the lukewarm instrumental “Herringbone Tweed” that
accompanies the screen test of Dennis Hopper, an early supporter of Warhol.
Hopper’s is the one screen test that reveals only an actor acting, and the
Luna-like riff in this track eventually seems to reflect the rote flavor of
Hopper’s performance. But it’s immediately followed by Mary Woronov’s screen
test and the dreamy drift guitar lines and glock-like Korg on the cover of
Cheval Sombre’s “I Found It Not So.” Woronov was a true Warhol regular – she
appeared in his first film, Hedy, in
1965 – and her subsequent career as a cult actress is maybe the most Warholian
legacy of any. The whole era reads like a half-remembered dream, and so does
In the liner notes to
the record, Wareham
points out that each screen test was the exact duration of a three-minute reel
of film, but that Warhol filmed at 24 frames per second and then slowed them
down to 16 frames per second on the screen. Not only did that stretch the films
out to four minutes (the perfect song length), but “at the slower speed,
expressions and emotions are magnified and the films become eerie,” he wrote.
They become revealing,
too. It was the beat-poet Buchanan, intentionally keeping her eyes open for the
duration of her screen test until tears flowed, who revealed the screen test’s
real genius: “You would see the person fighting with his image – trying to
protect it. You can project your image for a few seconds, but after that it
slips and your real self starts to show through. That’s why it was so great – you
saw the person and the image.”
What makes the Dean
& Britta project memorable is their obvious admiration for the screen
tests, but also their willingness to engage with them. Warhol was a great
believer in collaboration, and on this night the music and screen tests
coalesce to such a degree that it seems the faces on the screen are often
reacting to the music. And that’s as good a yardstick as any to measure Dean
& Britta’s success on this night, and with this project in general.