Scoring the Screen Tests

During December and January, the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto is screening Andy Warhol’s early films, including some rarely seen ones like Lonesome Cowboys, The Nude Restaurant and Bike Boy. On January 23, an evening of the “Screen Tests” is scheduled, which prompted my rediscovery of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ marvelous recording 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (2009).

Filmed between 1964 and 1966 at Warhol’s studio, The Factory, in New York City, the short films that became known as the Screen Tests capture a wide range of subjects, many of whom would go on to become significant cultural figures, like Susan Sontag, Yoko Ono, Dennis Hopper, Peter Hujar and Allen Ginsberg. Several Factory denizens and hangers-on who appear in Warhol’s films, including poets Gerard Malanga and Taylor Mead, the model and singer Nico, and socialite ‘Baby’ Jane Holzer also sat for the filmed portraits. Warhol would ask them to stay as still as possible for the duration of the film reel, usually two-and-a-half minutes, and to try not to blink. The camera remained static (though the subjects always don’t), and captured whatever action there was at 24 frames per second. Warhol then screened the silent films at 16 frames per second, slowing them down to the point that the people in them start to feel not of this world.

Commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, 13 Most Beautiful finds Wareham, the former front man of the late-80s, early-90s dream-pop bands Galaxie 500 and Luna, and his wife and collaborator Phillips, adding music to 13 of the Screen Tests. Such a project could have gone terribly awry, but it works beautifully. 13 Most Beautiful was released as a DVD with the songs accompanied by the screen tests, and as a regular CD without the visuals. (Unfortunately, the DVD appears to be out-of-print.) While the songs hold up on their own, the experience of watching the screen tests with the musical accompaniment is sublime. The nine original compositions and the four covers match the pace and mood of each Screen Test perfectly, while the lyrics often pick up on the personalities (and the eventual fates) of those onscreen. Wareham and Phillip’s drone-laden, fuzzy instrumentation and unpolished vocals capture the spirit of The Velvet Underground, the Factory’s legendary house band at the time.

Currently, only a few Screen Tests can be found online, most in truncated form. Of these, a handful have the Dean & Britta compositions accompanying them, including the Lou Reed rave-up “Not a Young Man Anymore”, poet Ann Buchanan’s unblinking triumph set against an instrumental, and a shimmering cover of “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills”, which perfectly complements Edie Sedgwick’s wide-eyed and doleful stare.

The film program Nothing Special: Andy Warhol’s Star System, and the accompanying exhibition of Warhol’s Hollywood memorabilia, Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen, runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto until January 24, 2016.