Adding sonic depth to Warhol screen tests
Andy Warhol's screen tests are the Rosetta Stone of modern celebrity. They're archeological evidence of a revolutionary idea - everybody is a star and so are you - that now rules our culture from "American Idol" to Facebook. These 472 4-minute films, each a one-take close-up of a somebody, or a nobody, or a nobody who willed him- or herself into a somebody, constitute both an achingly emotive yearbook of the Warhol Factory years from 1964 to 1966 and a dumpster dive of attitudes toward fame. They're profound even when the people they enshrine have been forgotten.
The screen tests don't get around much, but there were a generous handful at the Institute of Contemporary Art's Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater Saturday night, with live musical accompaniment from a four-piece band led by Dean and Britta, a.k.a. ex-Luna frontman Dean Wareham and his partner in music and life, Britta Phillips. The evening was titled "13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests," and it reverberated eerily out in a number of directions.
Just about anybody who wandered into the Factory in the mid-'60s got to make a screen test; Warhol and confederates Billy Name and Gerard Malanga would set up lighting, let the camera roll, and walk away, leaving the subjects to confront the gaze of a long and cruelly unforgiving take. Some of the subjects were well-known: Lou Reed, sphinxlike in wraparound shades and drinking a Coke; a young and very serious Dennis Hopper; Nico, the dark angel of the Velvet Underground; Edie Sedgwick, Warhol's doomed socialite muse, her afterimage burned on our retinas when the screen goes white at the end of the clip.
Others never made it out of the Factory alive, like Freddy Herko, who danced his way through a fifth-story window to Mozart's Coronation Mass in 1964. You can feel the difference between the professionals like Hopper (actor) and Nico (model) and homemade stars like Baby Jane Holzer, International Velvet, and Ingrid Superstar. The former play to the camera and put on an act, while the latter offer up sheer, discomfiting presence. When Ann Buchanan stares unblinking at the camera until tears drip from her eyes, the line between person and performer is obliterated.
Some think the screen tests should be watched in silence, as if pop tunes would be a distraction from works whose point is remorseless observation. Dean and Britta's original songs argue otherwise. The links between their music and these films are many: Both Luna and Wareham's first group, the Boston-based Galaxie 500, worshiped at the strum-and-drone altar of the Velvet Underground, Warhol's house band, and at times on Saturday it seemed as if the band were channeling the group directly.
For the Lou Reed screen test, Wareham played a righteous VU stomp called "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore," a "new" song from a recently unearthed 40-year-old bootleg; the title now packs a stinging irony. The Nico test was graced by Phillips singing Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine," written for Nico after she and Dylan had a brief affair.
The original songs were just as powerful: Wareham crooning the seductive "Teenage Highway" to an image of the smiling hustler Paul America, or serenading Buchanan's teary breakdown with a stately, molten guitar solo, or tweaking Hopper with prime West Coast '60s psychedelia. ("13 Most Beautiful . . ." is available on DVD from www.plexifilm.com).
Occasionally the evening broke loose from its moorings - "International Velvet Theme" was a listless dud - but more often sound and image powerfully entwined. Wareham and Phillips built a brooding guitar attack as Herko, months before his fatal dive, stared the audience down from the very edge of the frame, his features a high-contrast abstraction. If Warhol's screen tests memorialize the failed, the deluded, and the beautiful, the evening's soundtrack surrounded them with sympathetic echo.