From 1964 to 1966, Pop artist Andy Warhol made a series of what he called “screen tests”: nearly 500 soundless, four-minute black-and-white film portraits of regulars and visitors at his “Factory” in New York City. Some were of visiting celebrities such as Bob Dylan, but many were of people who became well known because of Warhol himself, such as the German singer Nico, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and socialite and actress Edie Sedgwick.
These early Warhol films are a significant part of the artist’s work, but they’re notoriously difficult to exhibit or screen. In 2008, with an eye toward establishing a new avenue for the public to appreciate them, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh commissioned folk-rock duo Dean & Britta to write songs for 13 of the “screen tests.”
The show was an unexpected hit. Although it was conceived as a one-off event for Pittsburgh’s annual Festival of Firsts, it has been performed more than 70 times since then, from Lincoln Center and the National Gallery of Art to Charleston’s Spoleto Festival and the Sydney Opera House. A showing is even scheduled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October.
On March 31, Dean & Britta will bring “13 Most Beautiful” to Atlanta for the first time, in a showing at Symphony Hall.
“Even now when I look at the screen tests, the subjects just seem so present and alive,” says Britta Phillips from the couple’s home in Brooklyn, where she and her husband Dean Wareham create and record their music. “It’s really like a living, moving portrait. People can find it hard to sit still and watch this silent black-and-white face staring back at them, but with the music we wanted to create something that would connect the viewer to this person.”
After receiving the commission in 2008, their first step was sifting through the films. Wareham made three trips to the Warhol Museum to view approximately 150 of them. He narrowed those down to 50, and the couple then chose the final 13 back in Brooklyn.
The number 13 and the title of the show are derived from Warhol, who would make compilations of the films for parties and call them “13 Most Beautiful Boys” or “13 Most Beautiful Women.” The conceit was most likely borrowed from a New York City police brochure of “The 13 Most Wanted,” another Warhol obsession.
“We just kept watching them and playing different pieces of music, just to see if they worked and to see which ones jumped out at us,” explains Phillips. “We would sit down and just play. I’d have a bass guitar or keyboard, and Dean would have the guitar. It was very intuitive.”
The pair also did intensive research about the period, Warhol and the subjects of the films. “It was a little daunting,” she admits. “After the excitement of getting the project, we were kind of like, ‘Whoah. We’re collaborating with Warhol.’ We had to come to terms with feeling like he’d probably be OK with it. He was never precious about anything. He would always say things like, ‘Just do whatever’s easiest.'”
In the end, they chose subjects who were closely involved with Warhol and the Factory at the time. The “13 Most Beautiful” include Factory regulars Nico, Reed, Sedgwick, Baby Jane Holzer, Ingrid Superstar and Mary Woronov. When the subjects were filmed, Warhol or an assistant gave instructions not to move, not to blink and not to smile — though many, including some of these 13, disobeyed.
Most of the dreamy, evocative music is original, but the show also includes two cover versions. For Nico’s screen test, Dean & Britta perform her “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” written for her by Dylan, and for Reed’s they perform the rare Velvet Underground bootleg track “I’m Not That Young Anymore.”
About half the subjects are now dead, but Dean and Britta’s show has been seen by at least one of the surviving subjects: Reed came to see it in New York. “I was so nervous,” recalls Phillips. “He talked to us afterwards and said he thought it was beautiful.”
Sedgwick’s former husband came to one of the shows, as did Paul America’s sister. “The vividness and presence of the projected portrait can be a very emotional experience for those who knew the subjects,” Phillips says.
The show travels with an associate of the Warhol Museum to make sure the screen, lighting and digital projection meet its aesthetic standards. Though this will be the first showing of “13 Most Beautiful” in Atlanta, Dean & Britta have played the city before, and Phillips lived here briefly in 1997 when she played with a band called Ultra Baby Fat and lived in the Little Five Points area.
Overall, the success of the show — a CD, a DVD, extended bookings and new crossover audiences — has come as a complete surprise, Phillips says. “We had no idea that it would be going on as long as this. It’s just crazy. The screen tests and the music seem to just have this great evocative effect on each other that people have really responded to.”
Dean & Britta will present “13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” on Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 for museum members and $5 for Young Patrons and include admission to the museum after the show.