Review—13 Most Beautiful with Dean and Britta at the Vogue, Jan 30 2009
– by Gina Tessaro
“If I had to cast an acting role,” Andy Warhol once said, “I want the wrong person for the part.” And so, over a two-year period in the mid-sixties, he set a 16mm motion picture camera on a tripod in his Manhattan studio and candidly shot the denizens of his crazy world in a series of over 400 screen tests.
Thirteen of the silent, black-and-white test shots have been culled from the Andy Warhol Museum’s archive in Pittsburgh to become the basis for a collaborative work with musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (formerly of Luna and, in Wareham’s case, Galaxie 500 as well).
“13 Most Beautiful… Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” played to a packed Vogue Theatre last Friday evening, Jan. 30, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, finally rectifying the fact that the audio has always been the least interesting aspect of Warhol’s films.
Projected above the stage, each of the thirteen screen test subjects uniquely engaged the room. Even Wareham and Phillips, backed by a rhythm section, couldn’t look away, often turning mid-song to gaze up at the screen. Some of these faces are familiar to us. Dennis Hopper theatrically bunches up his brows, and then suddenly relaxes into an approving little nod in perfect sync with a sharp left turn in Wareham’s instrumental score.
Nico plays hard to get, turning her face away from a camera that doggedly pursues her glacial beauty. While she pensively and self-consciously obscures her face with her hands, Phillips conjures “Pale Blue Eyes” with her tambourine.
For Lou Reed’s screen test the band unleashes the big sonic thunder, churning through the Velvet Underground’s own “Not A Young Man Anymore” while Reed slyly sucks on a Coke.
And then there’s the iconic Edie Sedgwick, who does the least with her test, relying instead on her ornamental beauty to hold our attention. “God, you are so beautiful, and you shine just like a star,” Wareham sings as she blinks languidly at the camera without a trace of lurking mental illness or the doom to come.
What surprises about these rarely-seen screen tests is how fearless and responsive the subjects are to the camera and to the notion of their own celebrity. Whether it’s Ann Buchanan‘s four-minute show-down in which she doesn’t move or blink as tears slide down her face, or Freddy Hurko‘s restive inability to stay out of the shadow and within the frame (he leaped to his death a month later), there’s something a little fascinating about each of them.
Warhol liked to collaborate, and his Pop art was always laden with iconographical tendencies. Wareham and Phillips seem to get that the test shots were set up so that everyone got the part, and scoring each image with mostly-original songs gives Warhol’s work a contemporary context. Accompanied by the thirteen songs they inspired, the screen tests no longer reference a particular place in time. Wareham and Phillips lift them right out of the ’60s, presenting them as forever and now.