It’s hard to review a show like 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests because it’s hard to define a show like it. And when watching a show like this, it’s hard to decide where to focus: On the gorgeous films that Warhol created in the ’60s, now projected on a large screen in front of us or on the musicians in front of us today who are playing gorgeous music to go with those gorgeous films? Was is it better to watch it seated and silent, or would the experience have been more enjoyable if the audience had been able to stand and enjoy it like we do when Dean and Britta are playing shows with their other bands? And who should come to this show? Music lovers? (Yes, emphatically.) Art lovers? (They might not be getting quite what they want.)
If you’re a fan of music, and of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ past and current bands, or of Warhol’s film work, then it is a rare treat to see either in such an intimate and refined way. But the multimedia experience is not an easy one. Unless your brain is good at multitasking, you may have to decide what to pay attention to at what times. Some of the films are really engaging, like Paul America, his face half covered in shadow, at times breaking his cool character. And there’s Dennis Hopper, who looks like he’s going to cry or kill you or both. But there are moments where you should be watching the musicians perform, like when Wareham mimics the sounds of a steel guitar or when the drummer’s beats are manipulated.
The band — Wareham, Phillips, and two additional musicians — recall the dreamy feel of the ’60s with an instrument popularized long after: the synth, which adds a pretty psychedelic sheen to many of the songs. Wareham’s a master of the gorgeous, echoing guitar solo, and his instrument plays the primary role in each of the songs. At the same time, the rest of the band is not overshadowed. The expansive stage gave each member ample space to capture the audience’s attention.
The songs for the male screen tests have a rockin’, masculine feel to them, while the women are given a poppier handling — except for Ingrid Superstar. Her piece is all sass. There’s also a droning quality to many of the songs, to match the images of the stars on the screen, many of whom don’t move much for their four-or-so minutes in front of the camera. And that’s the interesting thing about this show. Even though there was sound filling the blackness of the Emmett Robinson Theatre, the original silence of the films still permeates beyond the screen.
There were three particular high points during the show. The soundtrack for Mary Waranov, lyrics and all, was timed so perfectly to her reactions. The song tells her everything that Dean wants to do with her, and she seems devoted but uncomfortable. She’s nervous but keeps her cool. Then when it’s Nico’s turn, Phillips steals the stage right from her, sweetly singing and shaking the tambourine. And the epic instrumental for Freddy Herko received a whoop from the crowd. Some of the vocally driven songs didn’t mesh quite as well as the others or as the instrumentals. The covers definitely worked, as did the Waranov song and the erotic finale for Jane Holzer, but the others were distracting at times.
In between songs, Warehem, and on one occasion, Britta, shared factoids about Warhol and the test subjects. You’d be surprised how many people frittered away a Warhol artwork for something as inconsequential as, say, a used couch. But the underlying theme of the show was the inescapable fact that many of these once beautiful, lovely people died tragically. One jumped out a window. Another met his maker on the side of the road while walking to the dentist. It’s a bittersweet show: There’s the tragedy behind the films, and the exquisiteness of seeing them and what they ultimately inspired.