We may know next to nothing about her, but most of us know Edie Sedgwick’s face — the blond pixie haircut, the thickly lined eyes. As one of Andy Warhol’s muses, she was as iconic as his Marilyn Monroe print or his can of Campbell’s soup. In a four-minute film, we can see her, lips slightly parted, eyes wide and staring. She’s still and a bit detached, and there’s no telling just what she’s focused on, whether it’s Warhol behind the camera or something or someone else entirely.
“Oh my God, you are so beautiful,” Dean Wareham sings to her, in a time and place totally separate from Sedgwick’s world. It’s a song he and his wife Britta Phillips composed especially for this moment. The song is one of a series of 13, each corresponding to its own screen test, which Warhol shot in the 1960s during the height of the Factory, his New York City studio. The film is one of hundreds, starring both recognizable and unknown faces, that the pop artist made. Decades later, in a live show in Charleston, Wareham and Phillips, along with two other musicians, will perform as a projector displays the films chosen for 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.
The show is a joint commission of the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and was originally put on as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. Wareham had a working relationship with Ben Harrison, the museum’s associate curator of performance art, since his band Luna had played there in the past. Harrison was trying to do something to make people more aware of the tests; it just so happens that he was a fan of Galaxie 500, Wareham’s late ’80s slowcore band. (Wareham eventually formed Luna, the band he played in with Phillips. They now perform as Dean and Britta.) “I’m kind of lucky,” Wareham says. “If I had had this idea and gone to them, I’m sure I would have been told no.”
Warhol made 472 films. Only half of those are even available for viewing, since the rest haven’t been transferred to newer formats. When the process began, Wareham went to the Warhol Museum and sat in a conference room, going through boxes and boxes of VHS tapes. He narrowed it down to 40, put them on a DVD, and brought them home to look at with Phillips.
It was difficult for the pair to pick the final 13. They had to research the subjects and what their lives were like during that period of the ’60s. “I kind of became most interested in the people who were in Warhol’s inner circle, that were there every day at least for a while, so Edie Sedgwick, Billy Name, Paul America, Mary Woronov,” Wareham says. He explains that while some of them may not have been there for long, they were important when they were.
Wareham admits that writing the songs was challenging. “We were hired to come up with a live show, and so that’s always what we were working on — how are we going to do this live with a four-piece band,” Wareham says. This wasn’t like scoring a film (something they’ve done before, on Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale). If it were, they could use a countless number of instruments and be as complex as they could possibly want. Instead, they knew that they would be limited to the four-piece act they have set up, and they knew they’d be limited to the exact length of each of the tests. “Now I can see why orchestras have a conductor on stage,” Wareham says. “It was kind of scary at first, to be up there. The music has to start right when the film starts, and it has to end right when they end.” There’s some room to improvise within the four minutes or so of each of the films, but the band won’t go past that time limit. However, they do pause between songs and tell the stories behind the faces on the screen.
The dream-pop qualities that Wareham has exhibited throughout his musical career work well with the previously silent black-and-white films. There’s a ghostly quality to the show. The faces you see — young and beautiful — no longer look that way. Some of the stars aren’t even alive anymore. “It was different for each film, just like it’s different for each song when you write a song,” Wareham says of the difficulty of composing the music for the show. “Some songs are easy, and some you work on and work on. Some of them Britta and I did just the two of us, and some of them we did with a four-piece band sitting in a room watching a screen.”
An important thing they realized was that whether or not a song was good or bad, it had to work with its film. “You put a certain song against a certain picture and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that works,’ without quite knowing why,” he says. This gave them the interesting opportunity to take previously written songs they didn’t quite like and put them against a gorgeous new backdrop. Suddenly, their music sounded completely different within this new context. “I think we’ve all had that experience of going to see a movie, and we like the music, and we go buy the music, and then we think it isn’t really much at all on its own,” Wareham says. “So it can work for you or against, but it’s an added challenge, and, basically, you learn that the picture is in charge.”
Wareham and Phillips aren’t exclusively playing originals. Lou Reed, for example, would have been very difficult to embody through music other than his own. “It’s our own fault for choosing to pick his screen test,” Wareham says. “‘How on earth are we going to write a song for Lou Reed?'” Reed had done about eight different screen tests. In an early one, made when he was new to the Factory, he looks young and innocent, wearing a preppy kind of jacket. Then there’s the film they ultimately chose, which was made a few months later. Reed has transformed into full “Velvet Underground mode,” dressed in a leather jacket, chugging Coke from a glass bottle, and hiding behind a pair of wraparound shades. “It’s difficult to appear vulnerable when you’ve got sunglasses on. It’s kind of a cheat in a way,” Wareham says.
They decided to go with one of Reed’s own songs, “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.” It was written during the Factory era but didn’t surface until a couple of years ago, and it paired well with the chosen test. They went the same route for Nico. For her, they’ll play “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” a song Bob Dylan wrote and lent to her for her Chelsea Girl album.
The show is a rare multimedia treat to anyone who comes across it. “When I do turn around and look at the faces on the screen, I think it’s a really nice, kind of magical experience,” Wareham says. “Half film, half music, and it’s not like a bunch of people just jamming along to an hour-long underwater landscape or something like that.” And usually, the public only gets access to the tests if and when they’re loaned to a gallery. Even back in the ’60s, people outside the Factory weren’t seeing the screen tests. “The films look great, and nobody gets to see them this way,” Wareham says.
It took a year and a half to get the show ready, and Dean and Britta have been touring on it for the last two and a half years, playing one or two shows a month. The project has been far more successful than they anticipated. “I think it just took over our lives,” Dean adds, “in a good way.”