Musicians debut soundtrack for Warhol’s moving portraits
It’s hard to overstate Andy Warhol’s influence on art and pop culture, both as an innovator and a mercurial, compelling public personality.
But, he also loomed large in the worlds of film and music, despite not having much training or obvious natural talent in either. Warhol rarely let that stop him — if something piqued his interest, he usually found a way to get involved.
In music, he became “producer” and all-around impresario for a young, genre-breaking rock band named the Velvet Underground. In film, he simply bought a camera and started shooting short films about the strange, fascinating people hanging around the Factory, his New York City compound. These are the “Screen Tests.”
” ‘Screen Tests’ is really a misnomer,” explains musician Dean Wareham. “It’s these experimental films he shot, mostly in the mid-’60s at the ‘Silver Factory,’ the one uptown. He came in, had people sit in front of the camera, and often walked away. In a way, they’re portraits, like the other portraits he was painting. Initially, some of them were very still — he told them not to do anything. Some of them break down and cry. Some of them — he shot all the Velvet Underground members — and they would screen them behind them or on top of them while they were playing.”
Wareham and Britta Phillips, through their band Luna, have built a successful career taking the Velvet Underground’s less-abrasive, pop-oriented final album “Loaded” as a starting point, then veering off into their own brand of seductively cinematic “dream pop.”
At the request of The Andy Warhol Museum, the New York City-based duo have assembled a collection of Warhol’s “Screen Tests” and composed scores for them. The project, “13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” debuts this week as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.
“I got a call from Ben Harrison, the music curator at the Warhol,” explains Wareham. “I’ve worked with them before — they were always nice to Luna. Ordinarily, they loan ‘Screen Tests’ to galleries or universities, but not a lot of people have seen them. If you look on YouTube, there’s nothing, which is incredible. So many of these are of famous people — Bob Dylan, Salvador Dali, Edie Sedgwick.”
Warhol often presented them in series, like “13 Most Beautiful Girls,” or “13 Most Beautiful Boys.” Wareham ended up selecting people who were essential to the scene at the Silver Factory, instead of famous interlopers like Dylan or Dali.
“Dennis Hopper is really the only actor we picked,” Wareham says. “But he was there at the beginning. He was the first person to buy one of the soup can paintings. And we’re doing a couple members of the Velvet Underground — Lou Reed and Nico — and Edie Sedgwick.”
These short films are like windows into an amazingly creative and glamorous yet, ultimately, doomed era.
“I always read about these incredibly productive periods in the ’60s — Dylan turned out so many albums, Warhol so many paintings. Well, then you figure out that they weren’t sleeping, they were on speed,” Wareham says.
“This kind of leads into a point about some of the ‘Screen Tests’ we’re doing — a lot of these people are dead, victims of the lifestyle, in a way,” he says. “One of these guys, Freddie Herko, a dancer who was in a bunch of Warhol’s films, and about a month after the Screen Test was shot, he committed suicide. He put on some Mozart and was dancing around his apartment, and danced right out the window of the fourth floor onto Cornelia Street below. And you can’t look at the Screen Test without thinking about it, because he looks like he hasn’t slept in a while. It looks like dark things are going on inside his mind.”
Some of the scores for “13 Most Beautiful …” are pop songs — Luna’s specialty — and others are more abstract pieces of music. Some are obviously under the influence of the Velvet Underground, but others aren’t. Wareham initially thought that imitating the Velvets would be too obvious, but later changed his mind.
“The Velvet Underground were one of the most influential bands of all time, up there with the Beatles and Stones,” he explains. “They made four albums, very different, all incredible. I think if you compare the first four Velvet Underground albums to the Beatles or Stones, those bands didn’t get really great until way later.”
Although the Velvet Underground never got very big in their own time, every “punk” or “alternative” or otherwise boundary-pushing rock band begins in their shadow. And it was Warhol’s eye for talent that gave this resolutely uncommercial band a chance.
“I don’t know what he did musically for the VU, other than let them be — protected them in the studio and let them make the record they want,” Wareham says. “And he made them take Nico (a German model and Warhol superstar) as a singer. I think that was a good move.”
’13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests’
What: For the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, film by Andy Warhol, live music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday