A quote regularly attributed to Andy Warhol reads: "Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it". Dean Wareham’s European premiere of his multimedia show 'Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films' broadcast Warhol’s filmed visions of beauty to members of the Barbican for the first time, alongside 5 New York musicians’ live interpretations. A stunning selection of indie, avant-garde and electronic music, performed by some of the best musicians in their field, made it one of the most experimental and rewarding nights of silent film you are likely to see.
The night was commissioned by The Andy Warhol Museum, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014; in it, Warhol’s selected short films showcased his tentative first forays into dramatic work, as well as more personal, intimate films that exposed some of the people closest to him. In particular, the opening film presented a striking portrait of Warhol’s boyfriend - poet and performer John Giorno - stood naked in a kitchen washing plates, shot in black and white and slightly slowed. While Warhol’s camera work is often at best questionable (he’s said to have filmed, cut and edited most of his films without any training or guidance), there’s a charm to his style, as well as an unerring ability to capture a character.
Much interest can be found in his screen tests, featuring the likes of one-time "Warhol superstar" Edie Sedgwick and Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan; here, Warhol would zoom in, out and around the posing model, focusing closely on their features to catch any movement or flicker. Most touching was a screen test depicting the then-elderly painter Marcel Duchamp and Italian model Benedetta Barzini, placing two separate generations of artists together on a bright white background, allowing them to talk and share a cigar. It is this keen eye for a character study that makes Warhol's films infinitely fascinating.
While the films showcased a variety of environments and styles on Warhol’s behalf, the music performed across the night was almost more disparate in kind, each performer tackling the task of accompanying short, single-subject films in totally different ways. Tom Verlaine, guitarist and veteran member of New York band Television, appeared simply with an electric guitar – his sparse, dream-like finger-picked rhythms brought life to ‘John Washing’ – with delicate harmonics and a timeless feel to the music, it fed a real sense of mysticism to the simple act displayed on-screen. Other films were given a similar loving treatment by Verlaine, although it’s interesting to note 'Jill', which followed feminist author Jill Johnston dancing with a rifle with a hint of amusement; here, Verlaine’s picking became ever so slightly pinched, almost pained, with some trepidation as to the peril on-screen.
The entrance and subsequent performance of Martin Rev, electronic expert and synth player in American duo Suicide was the complete antithesis of the calm, sleepy tone produced by Verlaine. While Verlaine watched the screen intently whilst playing, Rev strode on-stage and faced the audience while powering out 15 minutes of absolute no-wave music, almost defiantly ignoring the screen. Dissonant, brash and arrhythmic, the continuous stream of sound played over all 3 Warhol films while Rev stared straight out at his adoring audience. It brought a new sense of discomfort and intensity to what was happening on-screen – the short film ‘Superboy’, which displayed a young man repeatedly chugging a bottle of Coke was ramped up in emotion by Rev’s screeching synths.
Other performers on the night brought their own unique perspective to the films, providing yet more variation for the audience to enjoy. Eleanor Friedberger’s punchy, acoustic indie songs were as powerful as her impassioned explanations of each song and its lyrics, including words taken from newspaper cuttings and a track from her latest album, 'All Known Things'. Wareham’s sprawling blues-rock, tinged with Velvet Underground inspiration, was an ideal musical setting for Warhol’s filmed study of Nico, as well as the slow mini-drama ‘Kiss The Boot’. Bradford Cox of Deerhunter had provided a soundtrack of analog ambience for the final three films, which included a rare showing of Warhol himself with actor and performer Taylor Mead. However, Cox was not present due to a family bereavement.
This only helped to prove that the most compelling part of such a unique event was not simply the music or the films, but the way in which each musician and their music interacted with Warhol’s creations. Whether it was the calm, loving care of Verlaine, the detached thunder of Rev or the punchy, emotional storytelling of Friedberger and Wareham, one thing’s for sure: they all got it right.
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