13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests
d. Andy Warhol / 1964-66 / USA / 4 mins per film
with live music by Dean and Britta
@ Barbican Theatre (London, UK)
It’s a simple enough concept: grab a camera and a roll of 16mm film, point said camera at your friend, acquaintance or personal superstar and keep shooting until the very last frame has had its all too brief moment in front of the shutter. No sound, no dialogue, no enforced action of any sort…just faces in the frame – some smiling and a few scowling, plenty of posing and a couple of tears.
Andy Warhol was nothing if not a man of ideas. And whilst some of the film work that felt his grasp was subsequently tinged with a certain straining pretense, his five hundred odd ‘screen tests’ have stood the test of time as both his simplest film offerings, and undoubtedly some of his best. Shot under key lights with a 16mm Bolex on black and white, full-frame silent stock, 24 frames every second and 100 foot at a time, each reel was then projected in slow motion – a graceful, ethereal 16 frames per second – and often grouped into compilations with typically Warholian names like 13 Most Beautiful Boys or 50 Fantastics.
Having steeped themselves in every facet of late-’60s New Yorkiana and doffed their proverbial leather flatcaps in the general direction of Factory house-band The Velvet Underground, songwriting duo Dean & Britta (ex-Luna / Galaxie 500 / Jem) have – at the behest of the Andy Warhol Museum – created a wonderfully evocative score for thirteen of Warhol’s finest screen tests.
Presented under the banner 13 Most Beautiful, these screen tests include some pretty iconic names (Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Lou Reed and his Coke bottle), with each individual reel immeasurably enhanced not only by the musical accompaniment, but also by Dean Wareham’s excellent, insightful intros – no doubt developed via material devotion and plenty of research – which veered from retelling period anecdotes to shining a light on the stories behind those faces lesser known.
It seems rather easy, in this day and age, to sniff at the idea of a pair of modern songwriters – particularly ones who had previously provided a soundtrack for Noah Baumbach – writing music for a collection of Andy Warhol films and taking them out on the road. But approaching 13 Most Beautiful with a cynical attitude not only belies the sheer cohesion of these screen tests with Dean & Britta’s spot-on musical nous, but it also fails in some sense to understand the very nature of Warhol himself: turn up, tune in, sell out.
And I mean that in the best possible way. After all, it feels more and more like we attach a certain sense of preciousness to Warhol’s work that never really existed, despite having previously been applied to everyone from the Old Masters to the new masters of modern art. And whatever you think about Andy Warhol’s work, I don’t think you could ever accuse him of being over-precious. The preference for popular culture and its attendant forms of mass production (and re-production) were intrinsic to his work, and yet today we lionize the works as much as the man, often in an attempt to reign his visionary, atypical approach into line with our more traditional notions of artists and art objects.
And aside from the music – and, of course, the screen tests themselves – the most wonderful thing about 13 Most Beautiful is its unwillingness to give in to this growing sense of preciousness. Far from the seven-digit auction houses, this project seems to be about bringing Warhol’s work to audiences, about finding a new way to present his works and a new way for us all to experience them. I, for one, am sold.