Spring 2011
Setting Andy to Music

With a first-time production that exceeded even The Warhol’s wildest dreams, 13 Most Beautiful … Songs from Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests is the museum’s latest global success story.

By Cristina Rouvalis

In 2007, Ben Harrison, curator of performing arts at The Andy Warhol Museum, phoned indie rock star Dean Wareham with an intriguing offer: “Would you like to compose music for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests?”

Wareham, singer and songwriter for the band Dean & Britta and former frontman of “slowcore” alternative-music pioneers Luna and Galaxie 500, pondered the proposal for maybe a second or two. “Yes,” Wareham answered. “Absolutely yes.”

After all, it was Warhol they were talking about, the visionary Pop artist who between 1964 and 1966 obsessively shot hundreds of four-minute films of his beautiful friends at his New York City studio, The Factory. Bathed in evocative silence, his subjects—cultural icons in their own right—gaze nakedly into the camera, at turns bored, playful, and tragic.

Photo: Rob Long

“It’s not often you get to work on a film so good, even if the director is dead,” Wareham says. He and former Luna bandmate Britta Phillips, also known as the singing voice of Jem from the mid-1980s animated show about an all-female rock band, Jem and the Holograms, jumped at the chance to set the Screen Tests to music and fuse them into a live multimedia show.

Excited as they were about 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, as the project was soon named, it was daunting. Would purists accuse The Warhol and the band of tampering with a masterpiece—the musical equivalent of colorizing a black-and-white film? Would setting the Screen Tests to indie rock make Warhol spin in his grave? Hard to say. But the production that blossomed from Harrison’s proposal has surpassed all expectations, booking 52 performances at venues across the globe, including New York’s Lincoln Center, and garnering international acclaim.

Dean & Britta weave seductive melodies while above them, on a giant screen, Edie Sedgwick blinks hypnotically, a cocky Lou Reed downs a Coke, Baby Jane Holzer brushes her teeth, and 10 additional beauties face the probing eye of Warhol’s camera.

The show has toured nearly two dozen American cities, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Western Europe. And there’s no end in sight.

“It just keeps going and going,” says Harrison. “I was going to be very happy if it went to a dozen arts organizations.”

A flurry of firsts

The idea for 13 Most Beautiful first came to Harrison and Geralyn Huxley, the museum’s curator of film and video, when they were considering ways to utilize the film collection in a commissioned touring performance  project that could broaden the audience for Warhol’s silent films. For years, people had been emailing the museum’s retail store asking to buy a Warhol movie. Now, not only can they buy the soundtrack for 13 Most Beautiful, but also a DVD featuring the selected 13 Screen Tests with accompanying music and extra features, marking the first major commercial release of an early Warhol film. (Warhol pulled his films from distribution in the mid-1970s.)

Harrison and Huxley could have selected any Warhol film. But they chose the Screen Tests because, at the time, they weren’t all that well-known, they’re only four minutes long—about the same length as a pop song—and each is a silent portrait that invites interpretation. “You read into them what you will,” says Harrison.

The initial performance, jointly commissioned by The Warhol and The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, premiered in October 2008 at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts before taking off around the world. Like Warhol himself, the show straddles high and low culture, playing venues from the stately Sydney Opera House to the folksy, open-air Celebrate Brooklyn Festival and a church in rural Georgia. It has circled back to New York City three times, playing its 50th performance at New York University’s Skirball Center this past October.

Dean & Brita with 13 Most Beatiful architect, Ben Harrison, at The Warhol
Photo: Joshua Franzos

New York is where it all began 46 years ago, when Warhol invited visitors to his studio to stare into the camera. He would sometimes leave the room after instructing his subject to sit still for two and a half minutes, though many fidgeted, squirmed, or played to the camera. Warhol slowed down the clips, stretching them out to four minutes, creating an eerie quality to his friends’ blinks and  grimaces. He catalogued a library of about 500 Screen Tests, including a subseries he labeled 13 Most Beautiful Women and 13 Most Beautiful Boys.

Harrison wanted a band that could capture the dreamy quality of those short films, and Dean & Britta was his first pick. A longtime fan, he had listened to Luna in college in the 1990s. “Like the Velvet Underground, Luna and then Dean & Britta have a dreamy and languid sound with an undercurrent of aggressive churning,” says Harrison.

Dean & Britta have long had a cult following among indie rock fans, but the 13 Most Beautiful tour marked a big change for the band. “We’re used to touring around and playing in dirty
rock clubs with horrible toilets,” jokes Wareham, a native of New Zealand. “It’s been pretty nice to play in museums and churches. We played in a 15th-century church in Paris, the Sidney Opera House. It took over our lives for awhile.”

Bad-boy seal of approval

Though many of the hard-partying subjects in the Screen Tests died young, others who survived the ’60s came to 13 Most Beautiful to revisit a wild chapter of their past.

During the second performance in Lincoln Center, rock star Lou Reed, who played at The Factory with The Velvet Underground and is a subject of 13 Most Beautiful, watched from the second row with his wife Laurie Anderson. Afterwards, Reed told Wareham and Phillips that the show was “beautiful,” an endorsement that remains a high point of their world tour. The duo set his Screen Test to the Velvet Underground’s I Am Not a Young Man Anymore, a song that was never released on any of the band’s albums, though a bootleg copy was released online. Reed, the quintessential bad-boy rocker in his Screen Test, gave Wareham permission to use the song.

“It feels like you are traveling back in time and getting to know these Warhol folks through an evening of unusual musical theater,” says Harrison. “It’s dark overall. A lot of the songs and Screen Tests have dark overtones. A lot of these people have tragic stories.”

Consider Ingrid Superstar, the blonde who starts her Screen Test with a playful and obscene gesture to the camera. But as her film progresses, she clenches her jaw and turns away as her eyes well up with tears. An ominous drumbeat ends the song. Superstar twitches in pain. On stage, Phillips explains to the audience that Superstar was battling heroin addiction. Later, Phillips continues, while living in her mother’s house in upstate New York, Superstar announced she was going out for cigarettes. She then put her false teeth on the counter and her fur coat on the table and walked out. Her friends and family never heard from her again.

Wareham and Phillips, who researched The Factory crowd extensively, pause to narrate stories like Superstar’s throughout the show. “We didn’t want to pound it out,” Harrison says. “We wanted more of a multi-media performance, with short poignant stories that speak to the personalities of the subjects. Not at all didactic.”

The performers also tell the tragic story of Freddy Herko, the dancer filmed smoking in the dark during his Screen Test, portending an end that happened soon after. During a friend’s party, he walked into the living room naked, began dancing to a Mozart piece, and then jumped out a four-story window to his death.

Dean & Britta have also performed the show in front of surviving friends and relatives of the late Screen Test stars. “We met Edie Sedgwick’s ex-husband at the show in Santa Barbara, and Paul America’s sister at the show in Ann Arbor,” Phillips notes. “After doing this show over 50 times now, I feel almost as if I know these people, and I’m especially struck by the ones that died so young because they seem so present and alive on the screen. So it was quite moving to talk to the people who were so close to them after the show.”

"The picture is in charge. The music is subservient."

-Dean Wareham

Wareham, who had hung Warhol’s self-portrait in his Harvard dorm room, enjoyed learning more about The Factory scene, which was filled with a strange mix of “debutantes and speed addicts.” He notes, “All of them were just names to me before. Now I understand what was going on. The Factory might not have been a fun place to hang out unless you were on drugs.”

Picture perfect

To create 13 Most Beautiful, Wareham worked with Harrison to select and sequence the images before scoring the film. The challenge was picking just 13 from hundreds of glamorous people. Harrison explains that Warhol used the “13 Most Beautiful” label loosely. “It was a revolving roster,” he says. “Depending on who was coming to a party, Warhol would show certain Screen Tests to make people happy.”

Wareham came to Pittsburgh several times  so that he and Harrison could sift through a number of the short films. On occasion they had to select among several Screen Tests of the same subject, such as clean-cut and bad-boy  versions of Lou Reed (they went with bad-boy Lou). In the end, they chose 12 Factory regulars and rounded out the pantheon with Dennis Hopper’s familiar face.  

Dean & Britta spent a year and a half scoring the film through a process of trial and error. Though they had created music for films such as The Squid and the Whale, this project was more demanding because music played continuously throughout about an hour of footage. “We had to figure out the mood of each of these films without a director saying, ‘I like this,’” recalls Wareham. “You try a lot of things and you put it up against the picture. The picture tells you if you are making it too slow or overdoing it. The picture is in charge. The music is subservient.”

Eight songs have lyrics, while purely instrumental compositions color the darker footage of Freddy Herko, Richard Rheem, Billy Name, Dennis Hopper, and Ann Buchanan. Tears stream down Buchanan’s unblinking eyes in a portrait Warhol calls “something wonderfully marvelous.” Wareham’s partial to these instrumental songs.

Harrison also wanted to make sure the films were as important as the music and not a backdrop, as Warhol himself had used them in The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, his first multimedia show in 1966 featuring ear-splitting music, dancers, strobe lights, and a barrage of visuals. And he wanted to control how the films were presented in the various venues around the globe. The museum didn’t want to just send DVDs of the Screen Tests around the world and hope for the best. “That would have been a disaster,” Harrison says.

From the start, Clear Story Creative, a Pittsburgh theater production company, helped develop the project. As the show travels, Clear Story’s Rob Long, Scott Nelson, and Doug McDermott take turns accompanying Dean & Britta to set up lighting and visual equipment, ensuring the quality of the screenings.

Wareham says he’s received a few “How dare you?” e-mails from purists accusing him  of tampering with the silent films. But overall, the response to 13 Most Beautiful has been overwhelmingly positive, although he admits that, early on, he and Phillips felt the shadow of Warhol hanging over the production.

“We did think about Warhol,” Wareham says. “It was a little intimidating. There is no knowing what he would think. We had to please ourselves.”

Harrison wondered, too. Warhol seemed equally at home at the Metropolitan Opera and Max’s Kansas City. So it was ironically appropriate, he notes, that these films—shot 46 years earlier in Warhol’s notorious mid-town Factory—would be presented at Lincoln Center’s pristine Allen Room, with Lou Reed in attendance, and a twinkling snow-covered Central Park as the backdrop.

“It was a decidedly uptown experience,” he says.

Also in this issue:

Reclaiming Paul Thek  ·  Science for Life  ·  Chasing Beauty  ·  Special: Salute to David Hillenbrand  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Ragnar Kjartansson  ·  Science & Nature: 100 Years of Homemade Lightning  ·  Artistic License: Something to Believe In  ·  The Big Picture