A Kind of Homecoming: 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests

ARTS, Features, Music

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, formerly of Luna, play to thirteen of Andy Warhols Screen Tests at the New Zealand International Arts Festival this March—the Kiwi-born half of this duo making his ‘Wellington debut’. (UPDATED MARCH 6, 2010) Plus, a review of the show.

In some ways the choice is an obvious one, maybe too obvious. The connection between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground is legendary. So if you are going to commission a musician to soundtrack some of Warhol’s films, of course you’ll approach a VU-phile. It’s verging on the ironic that Dean Wareham’s latest musical incarnation is his least Velvet Underground-inspired to date.

Starting with the psyche-pop/dream pop/slowcore/shoegazy/indie trio Galaxie 500 in the late-1980s, then leaving that band to helm Luna through the 1990s without straying too far from his familiar sound, Wareham and Luna survived to see in this century, and included one-time The Chills bassist Justin Harwood. Replacing Harwood towards the end of Luna’s existence was Britta Phillips, with whom Wareham has continued to record under the Dean & Britta moniker. And it is this band that Wareham will be bringing to Wellington in early March, along with a bunch of Warhol’s films.

Wareham’s link to Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground goes back years. Luna opened for Velvet on their 1993 European reunion tour, and Sterling Morrison played some wonderful guitar on Luna’s 1994 Bewitched album. However, the Velvet’s influence has become less obvious with each band. While there are clear similarities between Galaxie and Luna, the centre of attention was always the guitar. With Dean & Britta, the sound is less guitar focused and, where Luna was a vehicle for Wareham’s songs, D&B draws strongly on Phillips’s singing and songwriting, making for smart adult pop (for want of a better label).

The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (his hometown, if not the town with which he is most often connected) have often stepped outside of the museum tradition by staging multimedia shows. The Museum’s Performance Curator had previously invited Wareham to DJ at the museum and also arranged a Luna performance there. So it wasn’t too much of a stretch for the museum to ask Wareham if he would be keen to provide some musical backing to the Screen Test films.

And of course his response wasn’t exactly unexpected either.

Between 1964 and 1966 Warhol shot around 500 Screen Tests, though not all were kept. The set up was simple—load a camera with a cartridge of film (about 2 1/2 minutes), set the camera going and leave the room, leaving the subject to react to, or interact with, the camera in whatever way they liked. The resulting vignettes are silent portraits of subjects ranging from Silver Factory regulars to occasional visitors, the famous to the unfamiliar. Shot at 24 frames a second, the films are screened at 16 fps slowing down all the action.

Wareham and Phillips watched about 200 of the films to find their 13 Most Beautiful, the number coming from Warhol’s regular conceit of screening selections of 13 films. Over the phone from New York, Wareham tells me that they didn’t want to focus purely on the famous, the recognisable, but were looking for drama, for change, in the films. We get to see amongst other things, Lou Reed drinking Coke, Ann Buchanan crying, and Jane Holzer brushing her teeth. 

The show consists of the films screening above the band performing on stage with the emphasis is on the screen, and the band is visible under muted lighting. Wareham says that the music is not quite a film score, offering more of a supporting role to the individual films. The majority of the tracks are Wareham and/or Phillips originals. The selection was considered, but in the end, trial and error dictated the final pairings, with songs being played alongside films and seeing what worked best, wanting something that matched the film but which also helped create a mood. Having previously worked on the soundtrack for The Squid and the Whale, Wareham said there was some benefit in having a dead director, as it allowed the pair the freedom to do what they felt was right, free from third party interference (or someone else’s thoughts).

Covers have long been a part of Wareham’s musical journey with none of his bands being afraid of doing interesting material written by other bands—Galaxie 500 did a great ‘Ceremony’ by Joy Division/New Order, Luna recorded a beautiful, irony-free ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. For 13 Most Beautiful there were a number of non-originals that made perfect sense to play, including a Bob Dylan track written for Nico, and a rare Velvet Underground song—a live version of which made it into cyberspace a few years back.

Wareham sounded excited by the fact that some of the material, while being performed by a four piece band, tends towards electronic, which is something he hasn’t really dabbled in before. It’s clear that Wareham’s interests extend to art, and he was equally excited about the fact that this show is a bit of a test for the Warhol Museum. The success of 13 Most Beautiful may encourage them to make some of the less known and less seen Warhol works more publically available; not just his films, but Polaroid photos and other material.

As it is of minor importance, but is undoubtedly interesting, we didn’t dwell on the fact that Wareham was actually born in Wellington, making this a homecoming of sorts. He has lived outside of New Zealand most of his life, and after nearly 25 years of making music 13 Most Beautiful will be his Wellington debut. Naturally he is anticipating a decent turn out from the extended family, and said it feels a bit like he’s in a movie about his own life.

It’s exciting that we get the opportunity to see some of Warhol’s films on the big screen. The fact that these are fabled, though rarely screened, and with musical accompaniment, makes for what promises to be a fantastic event. I, for one, can hardly wait.

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Review: 13 Most Beautiful begins with electronica wafting out of the speakers before the face of Richard Rheem appears on the screen above the stage. And it looks like a still photo until, some time in to the film, we see a blink followed by a flurry of camera movement and focus pulling. Towards the end of the film Dean, Britta and band wander on stage, beneath the screen, and start playing.

It’s a logical starting point for what follows on screen, as the cameraman is very much present and seems to be trying to get the hang of the technology. By the time Ann Buchanan appears, things appear to have been sorted out, the director knows exactly what he wishes to do, and the band is kicking into gear.

It seems superfluous to say that these people are beautiful, drop dead gorgeous even. There’s a quote from Andy Warhol stating, “I have never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty.” But it’s hard not to notice the traditional beauty of these people and what drew Warhol to them, and the intimacy of the filming tends to emphasise this. Between films, Dean and Britta introduce us to the characters/people, and what struck me most was the sadness of their lives. Granted, the ’13 Most Beautiful’ aren’t all casualties of the time, but so many were and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was fate, the association with Warhol, or some combination thereof.

The musical accompaniment, dreamlike, and beautifully so, is perfectly suited to Warhol’s Screen Test films. Dennis Hopper, especially, almost seemed to be reacting to the band. This is pretty much the music Wareham has been making for decades—a lovely update of 60s psych-pop, dreamy and evocative, with the occasional rockout moment.

Towards the end of the show the band did start to rock out a bit more, particularly with their version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Not a Young Man Anymore’—sounding much better than the original band’s live version which leaked onto the internet a few years ago.

There was also a pleasing variation in the short films, not only with the range of people and their reaction to being filmed—from Nico’s hyperactivity to the quiet beauty of Ann Buchanan and Edie Sedgwick—but in the lighting, framing, and even focus. Contemporary artists doing a similar thing (e.g. Fiona Tan) tend towards consistency, using flat even lighting for all their subjects, whereas Warhol was happy playing with different contrast and backgrounds; Susan Bottomly (aka International Velvet) more dark than light, for instance.

This being an Art show, not a rock performance, I was unsure how things would end. The audience clearly wanted more—an encore. We got Luna’s ‘Tiger Lily’, and Galaxie 500’s version of New Order’s ‘Ceremony’—both beautiful (of course). With any luck Dean and Britta will be back before too long without Andy, to rock us beautifully once more.

In his recent autobiography, Black Postcards, Wareham talks about trying to recapture the magic of childhood: “beauty and sadness and ecstasy all together.” The phrase is a great description of what is presented with 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.

Dean and Britta performed 13 Most Beautiful at the Wellington Town Hall, March 4. The New Zealand International Arts Festival runs from February 26-March 21, 2010.